The Inevitability of Tracking?

In looking to the future, Kevin Kelly has fallen into the trap of being constrained by the parameters of the world as it is currently. At digi.me, we are removing those constraints and building the future now.

In his book “The Inevitable — Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future”, Kevin Kelly looks at 12 forces that he believes are inevitable over the next 30 years: Becoming; Cognifying; Flowing; Screening; Accessing; Sharing; Filtering; Removing; Interacting; Tracking; Questioning; Beginning.

Kevin is careful upfront to say these are overarching trends and are not specifics; he is not drawing a picture of a definite world ahead, but outlining the forces that he believes will shape our future world. His view is that we should embrace & flow with these forces; trying to negate or legislate against them will fail (although he is not against legislation around them). But it is what he says about Tracking, an issue of deep relevance to myself and my business, digi.me, that I want to explore here.

His opening line, “we are opaque to ourselves” is followed by a dive into the vast amount of data we currently generate about ourselves, and how much more we would generate if taken to current extremes such as ardent Life Loggers do today. In doing so, he also examines where this data generation is likely to go, with automated sensors monitoring our health/body parameters, what we do, where we go, how we live, etc — every element of our lives in fact.

He outlines very well the many benefits of removing that opaqueness about ourselves, from knowing more and being able to understand and interpret that data better, to better health, interactions with others, work efficiency, and much more. Many of these have been identified before by the likes of Gordon Bell (a digi.me shareholder and Advisory Board member) and others who reference us and our work bringing just these benefits to users today.

Kevin makes the natural leap from self-tracking to the tracking carried out by others, including the government, and examines how this will only increase over time. He evaluates the potential benefits and drawbacks of this inevitable increase in self, third party and government tracking.

“All that was previously unmeasurable is becoming quantified, digitalised and trackable. We’ll keep tracking ourselves, we’ll keep tracking our friends, and our friends will track us. Companies and governments will track us more. Fifty years from now ubiquitous tracking will be the norm.”

Kevin looks at our desire to be treated as an individual, in contrast to our lack of comfort with sharing our data when we don’t understand who is using it, and what for.

“Now imagine these choices pinned on a sidebar. On the left side of the slot is the pair personal/transparent. On the right side is the pair private/generic. The slider can slide to either side or anywhere in between. The slider is an important choice we have. Much to everyone’s surprise though, when technology gives us a choice (and it is vital that it remains a choice), people tend to push the slider all the way over to the personal/transparent side. I would sum it up like this: vanity trumps privacy.’

Unfortunately, in looking to the future, Kevin has fallen into the trap of being constrained by the parameters of the world as it is currently. Today it is one dimensional; share with no control to have personalised service or don’t share and have no personalised service. However, that is not inevitable going forward — we can easily move to two and three dimensional sharing.

The second dimension is the realisation that, today, persistent sharing is very limited in data extent (social, searches, browsing, some positional data). Most of our data remains in digital silos and stovepipes (health records, wearables, financial data, positional data, media habits, and so on) — enabling sharing of this wider personal data is key.

The third dimension is the understanding that we can control our sharing without it having to either be to the world or not at all. Every time we share data we can decide whether it is for a single purpose only or to be used globally.

This three dimensionality is the rationale behind the Internet of Me/MyData approach for which digi.me is the leading exponent. If I am the sole entity in the world that owns all my data (the 360° picture of me ) I can do more with that myself and therefore gain the life logging/lifestream benefits that Kevin identifies, but I can also now decide who gets that slice of me, when, and for what purpose. It is not a question of sharing OR privacy; I can have sharing/personalised services AND privacy.

Taking this further, when the individual truly owns their data themselves (not owned by a third party for them) as in the Digi.me solution, we have “private sharing”, a seemingly oxymoronic term in Kevin’s world. Private sharing reflects an eventuality where I can share a slice of my data with a service on my device to benefit me, without that data ever leaving my personal infrastructure.

So, whilst I believe in Kevin’s vision of ubiquitous tracking and the advantages it will hold for individuals, businesses and society as a whole, it is important to note that privacy is not dead, people do not want to give up privacy (as shown by countless surveys), and people do not need to give up privacy. We can and will have privacy AND sharing. As we say at digi.me you’ll do more with your data, privately.

“Do more, privately”

Kevin goes on to talk about, as he calls it, “zillionics”, the insights that can come from the masses of data over masses of domains, processed by further advances in AI, mathematics and hardware. But if individuals are the only arbiters of all their data, will this inhibit greater public use for the benefit of all, and even the development of algorithms to help the individual? The answer is absolutely not. Firstly, data can be used anonymously, and secondly, we can already see rapid developments in what I call “distributed AI processing” where data can be processed locally for the individual and the resultant learned parameters passed back for centralised update of AI algorithms to be redistributed for use and further update, without compromising the privacy of the individual.

Finally, I would like to highlight a phrase Kevin uses that I think is marvellous and something which I will use going forward that is the “chemistry of information”. Kevin sees each set of things as new elements in a “periodic table of data” and “out of this new chemistry of information will arise thousands of new compounds and informational building materials”. Exactly so! The trouble we have today is that most of our chemical elements are trapped in separate beakers, severely limiting the compounds we can make (some targeted advertising, product recommendations).

By bringing all our data together in one place, at the individual (the only practical place it can be brought together), we can truly open up our chemistry set. I do see a future of ubiquitous tracking, of sharing with privacy, of an almost infinite set of new compounds (use cases) we can only currently see the edges of. A welcome future indeed & one we should all embrace.

A future Internet of Me where I am at the centre of my digital life, owning and controlling my data.