Ernst Heckel, Elgernder Mann

Stop Talking About Data!

The Next Generation Internet Flagship programme of the European Union sets out to foster an open and democratic, human and community centred internet. It wants to promote a ‘new narrative’ to break away from both the super capitalism that comes from Silicon Valley, and the state surveillance social credit model of China.

But as long as we keep talking in terms of ‘data’, we’ve half lost the battle. ‘Data’ is the central concept in the conceptual framework of our self-chosen opponents. ‘Data is the new gold’. But, as we’ve seen, if you think the internet is a gold mine, you’ll treat people like dirt.

We have responded to the threats of the surveillance capitalists by striving to protect our data. If it is gold, surely we should not give it away or let them steal it! Let’s keep it to ourselves. So we build data vaults and what not. Thinking this way, we all will become Scrooges, hoarding our precious data and leading miserable and lonely lives.

The concept of data as it is used, is troublesome. Why is data the new gold? Because it turns out that companies pay fortunes to buy behavioural futures, as Shoshana Zuboff coined the term. If you sell shoes, you’ll want to know the mind of customers that will shortly buy shoes. Data, supposedly, gives access to peoples desires, needs and intentions.

So data is valuable because it supposedly carries meaning. But does it? When Linear B clay tablets were found in Greece, archeologists immediately recognised them as messages. But it took a good many years before some of the meaning they conveyed, was recovered. This goes to show that a data (a message) carries meaning for someone. Out of context, data may be absolutely meaningless (another example to drive this home is the famous passage in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, where the answer to the ultimate question has been calculated over a period of a million years and turns out to be 42).

So we see the meaning of a message is restricted to some Context. Actually, we need people to provide the meaning to a message. So we have Contexts, and Roles in those Contexts (Roles instead of unique individuals). (People in) Roles will exchange messages (data) and interpret them.

But why send messages in the first place?

People act. Doing so, they change the properties of the world around them. Usually, this affects others — the very others that they share a Context with. But if those others cannot see with their own eyes the effects of your actions, you’ll have to inform them. To this end, you send a message. A message, data, ‘information’. ‘To inform’ derives from a Latin root that means ‘to give shape to’. So ‘information’ is a thought, given a physical shape. These shapes can be passed around (clay tablets, letters, electronic data).

Data derives from actions and our need to communicate in order to co-operate.

We now have Contexts with Roles in them, that perform Actions that change Properties of the world around them. Time for an example: a taxi ride. Intuitively, we recognise two Roles: the Driver and the Passenger. But let’s introduce a third Role, for the taxi itself. Things play a Role, too! The more so because we usually change the properties of the things around us, in our Actions. The Driver has some unique Actions (like actually driving) and so does the Passenger (like paying). But they share Actions, too, like reading the desired time, departure and destination (notice we assume a Context in which Roles communicate before actually meeting). The Role of the taxi — let’s call it the Vehicle — might be important for its properties such as number of seats or carrying capacity. Roles that are filled with things have no Actions.

People Roles have unique collections of Actions (two Roles with the same Actions are, per definition, the same Role). We call this the Perspective of the Role on its Context.

Now we arrive at a definition: Perspectives are the Actions of Roles in a Context.

Congratulations! If you’ve followed up to here, you master the core concepts of Perspectives, a new conceptual framework for modelling co-operation. And, oh, yes, for modelling software for co-operation. Because, as it turns out, once you have a model in terms of Contexts, Roles and their Properties and Actions, you have a complete software specification with a mathematical foundation. A running service, with screens, can be generated from it — and we do.

These core concepts are seeds from which a new narrative for the internet can grow. If you look back, you’ll notice that the definition does not even mention ‘data’ or ‘messaging’. These are means to an end, not an end in itself. We don’t need them to talk meaningfully about services, people and communities on the internet.

The software that follows from the model has lots of desirable properties. It can be completely distributed (making it far better than Blockchain in that respect). It is private by design. It can be explained completely transparently in terms of its model. It has traceability from actions to goals — making it a perfect starting point for explainability in terms of a rule-giving (e.g. legal) framework. It scales without limit. It is both human- and community centered by design (it is impossible to forgo either).

Best of all, it is built upon the assumption we all have a unique point of view. What could be more European than just that?

I will start to substantiate these claims next week, in a new post. Watch this space, or find answers by yourselves on our websites: is the best starting point for background; is all about Perspectives, the method and modelling software; and is the start of our effort to built a new Common.

This story is the first in a series. Here is the series introduction.