The wallet is eating the world

Very much like a dead cow wallet, but a digital one, a place where I can keep my entire information exhaust, out of all my digital interactions.

One that I, myself, get to control, a personal data locker, from which solely I own and have the keys to it, as well as the discretionary power to allow access to its contents.

Among the top public concerns regarding the internet, we can now rank first the individual sovereignty over personal data, followed by the willingness to ensure diversity, pluralism, and choice, along with the concentration of data in a few proprietary platforms.

Plenty of material on that subject already; here’s some of the most recent (by ascending order of the number of pages).[1][2][3]

You can also check this site, and see if you should also worry about it.

Probably not.

Whence, for the purpose of this article, I’ll deliberately skip the discussion regarding concerns with privacy and only lightly delve into the oblivious widespread monetization that we’re all being subjected to.

I’ll focus instead on what an internet plebeian gets from the current state of the art, for which one’s been gladly willing to downplay such concerns.

I’ll do it according to my personal, egotistic utility function. You might call it a customer journey or a use case, a particular area of our digital lives: professional, or work-related, personal development.

The main argument of this article, by way of a few, hopefully telling examples, is that a pull-based user-centered approach, as depicted in David Siegel’s book “Pull”[4], would be much more valuable to everyone concerned than the current one, a push-based platform-centered approach.

To clarify, the push-based platform-centered approach relies on you going out of your way into search engines, logging into a plethora of sites and leaving there all your stuff (e-mail address, password, personal details, and an audit trail of everything else you saw and did, being it for buying a toaster, booking a flight, or browsing watches you can’t afford) making it all ricochet back at you by e-mail offers and targeted ads, so that you may get back in and go through it all over again.

In a pull-based user-centered approach you start by asking for things in a search-like manner, but instead of being catapulted to sites to browse offers, the offers themselves come to you, and the interaction effectively takes place in your territory. You keep your stuff. Only the site you end up doing business with gets the minimum information required to complete the transaction. You’ll be able to supply useful business information, possibly even more valuable — like which offers you chose from — , but anonymised, at your full discretion, eventually for a tiny fee merchants will be happy to pay you for (more on that below).

Back to Bedlam. The world of work is changing, the soaring levels of employee disengagement are there and the shift from manual to mental labor already dates back from the fifties[5] but we keep holding on to a vision of work as ends-meet, static skills-based competency, and conformity, therefore unable to attain more fulfilling work experiences based on purpose, mastery, and autonomy.

As such, push-based professional networking platforms like LinkedIn thrive on this mismatch, forcing everyone to game the system, leaving both employees and employers frustrated[6].

Don’t get me wrong, I like LinkedIn. I learn a lot from it, get to know amazing people and keep having many rewarding exchanges.

That’s the point and the peak of my egotistic utility function: learning.

The downside of the current state of affairs is that all those interactions take place inside those platforms and my stuff, my experiences, are left lying there, on LinkedIn, as well as in many other places.

Let’s start with LinkedIn. My profile, attached resume, skills, recommendations, are all basically worthless, like everyone else’s, designed to look good, to appeal, to game the system.

On the other hand, my posts, likes, comments, and articles, with the passage of time tend to say much more about me than the above, but they’re buried dead on my activity history.

Sometimes I see myself scrolling back to get hold of something I wrote a while back, as it relates to an exchange that I’m having at the moment, but even strenuously, most times I can’t reach it.

You can ask LinkedIn to send you your entire history file by e-mail. You’ll get your connections, contacts, messages, and profile information in a zip file within ten minutes (mine arrived in less than one minute). Your entire activity and account history is delivered within 24 hours (mine arrived under half that time).

This way I got to know I joined LinkedIn on October 24, 2007, and who invited me, both facts forgotten long ago. From all the information contained in 24 Excel files, I also realized, since January this year, I issued 201 likes and 243 shares, clicked on 14 ads and wrote 28 comments.

It’s nice to know, but still cumbersome and, without the proper context, this information isn’t of much use.

The competing, or complementary, platforms, like Opportunity, Indeed, and Glassdoor are very much on the same page. Nextio takes a slightly different approach to valuing end user attention but doesn’t go much further either. There’s also humu, founded by two former Google executives, but it’s not yet clear what they’re up to.

There’s the ePortfolio approach, notably by several Badge Issuing Platforms, that purport digital badges as an online representation of skills earned, supplemented by the ongoing standardization efforts (Open Badges) that are meant to take that concept one step further, allowing skills, interests and achievements verification through credible organizations for access and review.

In this approach, badges are intended to function as a basis for connected learning environments, by motivating learning and signaling achievement, both within particular communities as well as across communities and institutions[7].

This is cool, the other day I got an e-mail from Acclaim, one of such platforms, letting me know that I’ve earned a badge. To accept it I just had to follow the given link, to an account creation landing page. There you go.

Let’s take now the example of O’Reilly’s Safari. It’s a subscription-based platform that gives you access to a fairly extensive assortment of books and online courses. The subscription money is well worth it, even if only for the O’Reilly’s books. Just add it to the queue and start reading. It keeps track of where you’re going. The same with the videos.

I currently have 52 books on my Safari queue, some completely read, others yet to start with, and the rest between nips and halfway through.

This gives me an idea of what and how much I’ve read lately there, but that information sits, exactly, there on Safari.

Take Degreed for another example. It’s a learning platform. It’s free. It’s structured around knowledge areas and learning journeys, pick one and start reading: books, articles, whatever. It keeps track of the things you read and watch, and gives you points. You can also record what you read outside the platform, like a paperback you bought at your local bookstore.

Great, but that information lies there, on the platform, not with you.

The same goes for Loomio, where you may take part in a decision process, or in a project you’re in, using trello or parabol, for example.

Even on the already ubiquitous Slack. Sentiment analysis on Slack?[8]

“Hey Joe, what do you know?”[9]

One last example, Grammarly. I’ve been using it for a while, far from a run-of-the-mill spell checker, it really helps (and sometimes annoys) you with your writing, pronouns, and punctuation. All this at a basic level. For more advanced issues, upgrade to a subscription-based premium version.

But what caught most of my attention was an e-mail I got a few days ago, with some statistics about my writing. By way of a weekly writing update, I got a rundown of the number of words I wrote, how accurate I was, and how extensive my vocabulary is.

Really cool, but where’s the data?

What if there was a way to keep all that data in a place of my belonging, consolidated and actionable. Not just for the purpose we’ve been discussing here, but also for everything else that concerns each individual internet user.

Think about it for a moment, take the information about all the stuff you bought in the past years, each class of products coming from more than a half-dozen merchants, and imagine you get to keep it. You could data mine yourself.

Alfer all, it’s your data.

We’re giving away all that information for nothing, unwillingly and unknowingly, and with the opacity with which that takes place, the companies who buy it aren’t well served either, to say the least.

Even with today’s technological prowess, companies keep falling on the old adage of not knowing which half of their marketing budget is being wasted.

Now that we’ve reached the tricky part I can’t help to quote a sentence from a paper[10] by one of the notable attempts to address this issue, HATDeX:

“How do you sneak a table cloth onto a table full of food, crockery, and cutlery while people are still eating?”

I guess you’ll have to start by copying all that scattered data.

For that you can have a HAT, an individual, secure, and private storage container, specially designed to hold the database of a user’s personal data. An open-source, personal cloud-managed containerized server instance, along with Rumpel, a kind of browser that functions as a dashboard, with which to visualize and personalize the information contained in the HAT.

This is serious, well thought out stuff. It’s subscription-based, after 30 days free trial period, which is understandable, as your dedicated server instance costs real money.

Even with such a dashboard, you’re still pouring your stuff onto all those platforms in the same push way, but with the upside that you get to keep a record of everything to yourself too, and that’s neat.

There’s also digi.me with a similar proposition. It’s free. They charge a small postal fee to the companies you consent to share data with. Not open-source though, so you’ll have to rely on their promises, very much like GAFA[11].

These approaches tap on the potential to springboard a reversal of the flow of information, if and when it goes through the repository/dashboard.

But you either pay for it or get monetized by someone else.

If personal data is the new oil and its value is more than enough to pay for such services, why shouldn’t the individual internet user be able to monetize himself?

There’s where the Pillar Project from Twenty Thirty comes in.

With the upcoming decentralized, blockchain-based, scalable systems for managing identity and reputation, using cryptography to ensure data ownership, privacy and security from the ground up, this project purports to realize a full blown pull-based user-centered approach, starting with a cryptocurrency multi-chain wallet, towards the personal data locker, and to bootstrap a token-based economic ecosystem to fulfill the assumptions discussed above.

If changing the world fancies you, check out the project’s Gray Paper and join the effort.

[1] Ng, Irene (Jun 5, 2017). Personal data innovation for whom? http://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/personal-data-innovation-whom (accessed Jun 16, 2017).

[2] © FIRE STUDY Consortium 2016–2017 (Mar 14, 2017). The FIRE STUDY Next Generation Internet (NGI) White Paper Survey Results. https://www.ict-fire.eu/the-fire-study-next-generation-internet-ngi-white-paper-survey-results/ (accessed Jun 16, 2017).

[3] Overton, David (Mar 2017). Final Report for the Next Generation Internet Consultation. https://ec.europa.eu/futurium/en/content/final-report-next-generation-internet-consultation (accessed Jun 16, 2017).

[4] Siegel, David (2009). Pull — The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business. New York: Portfolio — Penguin Group.

[5] Whyte, William H. (1956). The Organization Man. New York: Simon & Schuster. Cited in Burkus, David (2016). Under New Management. How Leading Organizations are Upending Business as Usual. Pan Books.

[6] Siegel, David (Mar 30, 2015). ONE INSANE HABIT CEOs of Disney, Apple, Tesla, Google, and LinkedIn share. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/one-insane-habit-ceos-disney-apple-tesla-google-linkedin-david-siegel (accessed Jun 17, 2017).

[7] The Mozilla Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University, in collaboration with The MacArthur Foundation (Ago 28, 2012). Open Badges for Lifelong Learning http://www.badgealliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/OpenBadges-Working-Paper_012312.pdf (accessed Jun 19, 2017).

[8] Imura, Tomomi (Jun 12, 2017). Building a sentiment analysis bot with IBM Watson and Raspberry Pi. https://medium.com/slack-developer-blog/building-a-sentiment-analysis-bot-with-ibm-watson-and-raspberry-pi-eeb399bb8803 (accessed Jun 17, 2017).

[9] Quote from the Steven Spielberg’s movie Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) by fellow “mecha” Gigolo Joe, played with a dancer’s agility by Jude Law.

[10] Ng ICL, Holtby J, Ma X, Aucinas A, Tasker P (2017) White Paper on Digital Dependency: The need for a Personal Data Exchange infrastructure. HAT Data Exchange Ltd. Available at: http://www.hatdex.org/digital-dependency/ (accessed Jun 17, 2017).

[11] GAFA is an acronym for Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon.