On Being a Data Puppet

The following is drawn from fragments of talks at Next15, Emerce eDay 2014, combined with recent adventures in expatriation.

Where do I want to be today? Image: my-private-network.co.uk

About six months ago, I started disappearing. My visibility in the US, which had been my main residence for the previous 11 years, began to fade.

This wasn’t in response to some scandal, or witness protection, but the response to a steady shift in the work I do from from West to East, from North America to Europe. I moved my business and family to Amsterdam, leaving behind over a decade of consumer existence — a critical decade as it turns out, from a data collection perspective.

As the move slowly ramped up, and even before it formally started, my purchasing cycles slowed down and spaced further and further apart. I was on the road frequently, much to the confusion and apparent incomprehension of my bank’s fraud department, which had seemingly slept through globalization. I appeared less and less as a persona within the databases of companies, and left less of a footprint in my home. I left Amazon, Whole Foods, Best Buy, and the small city worth of low-cost electronics retailers and vendors of cheeses and sneakers which relied on me for their existence. I surfed less on my home and mobile networks, I watched less TV, I bought less. I, or my data, gradually faded.

In those 11 years, I left a real and substantial trail of actions, intentions, interests, curiosities, purchasing patterns, favored sizes, perennial topics and product categories. From the point of view of retail, financial services, logistics companies, I’ve been a cloud of often fuzzy — but related — datapoints. While my job as a futures researcher frequently involves searching for and spending time consuming—things, information and —with often only the slightest, most exotic connections to them all. In the day-to-day though, I still ate tacos and burgers, drank a limited range of beers, frequented only a half-dozen key stores and ordered online from a small coterie of companies, like Amazon, Apple, REI, and a handful of others. Somewhere in there was, or should have been, a somewhat legible consumer.

But with the move, I left a ghost behind, a nearly empty shell, with hibernating credit cards, bank accounts, CCTV cameras, search logs, behavioral profiles and who knows what other unknown trackers, sniffers, and profiles idling deep on surreptitious servers run by agencies and programs only spoken of in leaks (yes, most of these databases are joined up and global, but who knows where the seams are?). Somewhere, my data doppleganger still exists like an old suit hanging in a closet. Maybe it’s out there somewhere shopping without me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Portrait of the author as a renderghost.

Funny things happen when you move from one data jurisdiction to another. Strange things matter. I only have partial control of my old American data self now. It’s still alive since I own a house in America, have banks accounts, maintain several credit cards, and still have the ability to shop at a few of my favorite offline and online stores in the Old Country. I continue to buy Kindle books from Amazon’s US business, though the bit-form of those books reach my iPad in the Netherlands. I even have a few software and app subscriptions that give me the benefit of US pricing or terms. It’s a kind of poor man’s data arbitrage.

Unfortunately, there are still many services that I can’t reach due to geographic licensing prohibitions which haven’t nearly kept up with technology and people’s behaviors. I can make use of proxy servers to reach a few, but most aren’t worth the effort. For example, Spotify won’t let me see my US account, but it isn’t worth the bother. Same with a number of digital media services, but so it goes. Some bits of my data limbs are collateral damage to the cross-border move. Like a victim of an accident in a matter transporter, I didn’t make it through the unscathed — some of my bits are missing.

Some versions of me I can operate remotely, like my bank and US mobile, or the aforementioned Amazon version of me. I effectively sockpuppet myself, operating an ersatz version of my consumer body from a distance. This is odd feeling, like you are faking something that was very real for a long time, like an uncanny valley of the self. And so it shall remain for the foreseeable future.

New Nation, New Data

Then there’s the other side of the story, our new data bodies. Even as I wound down my American data shadow, I had to begin work assiduously casting a new Dutch one, so that I might be visible, legible and accepted in my new home. This summoning of one’s new data being begins well before formal recognition by the state. For the latter purpose, a series of internationally recognized stamps and certifications are necessary, pursuant to an old treaty — the Westphalian state wheezing in its old age. Paper is the medium of choice, and all data is small, composed of a handful of vital statistics making up a few familial connections.

Even before my biometrics and residence are tied together to make me a whole person as seen by the state, my new commercial self was hastily under construction: a grocery store loyalty card (to keep costs low), a contactless train card (anonymous, but leaves a thick trail of travel data nonetheless), then a mobile SIM and bank account (now we’re talking juicy metadata production). A few online purchases later, I’m a real data-person, casting a longer and longer shadow as I go.

The author’s (partially incorrect) data as held by a top-tier US data broker.

And this shadow is necessary, as we needed a place to live, and things like gas, water and Internet services in the modern world. These don’t just get handed out to nonexistent people. I, and my family to lesser extent, had to take on new data forms to even be visible to the property market. To be a measurable risk, we have to first be measurable. With apologies to James C. Scott, states have nothing on banks and real estate brokers when it comes to seeing. Without a domestic data trail, you are invisible, illegible, un-trustable, regardless of how long you’ve existed somewhere else. Your data’s no good here.

“The days of being a region-locked human are drawing to a close, though too slowly for some still.”

With this level boss defeated, now we’re up to various insurances and ancillary financial products, citizen numbers for the whole family, and frequent purchases from favored retailers. Before we know it, we’ve started a bonfire, with our data smoke visible for miles. We’ve arrived, and breathed life into new data selves. We know this because the junk mail is now arriving (though the Netherlands has nothing on the US in this respect, with somewhat tighter controls on personal data). And, as my reward, I have multinational data clash to contend with, as I recently talked about to an audience in Singapore (whom I nearly didn’t get to meet, because my paper passport had too little months of left on it for that country’s entry regime. Thanks, Westphalia.)

Not the author’s passport. Image: Flickr / Daniel Greer

But, pursuant to the physics of big data, we haven’t just created four new entities, one for each family member, but probably a dozen or more variants, each as constituted from the point of view of different commercial or official relationships. No one company or organization has complete data, so, as we’ve discovered in the past with American credit bureaus and the various bits of direct mail sent to loose approximations of our names, we are legion.

Citizenship as a Service?

For expats of the near future, this worry about portability of the data self will become a larger and more sticky part of moving the fleshy self from one place to another. What part of me is stuck in my old smart home, as Stephanie Rieger recently asked? How do I populate myself into new systems? Will these new systems misunderstand me? What are the cultural data norms of my next home?

There is no popping your data on a USB and just walking it over to your new country, no back-up and re-install, no single sign-in (yet). Will this happen eventually? Countries like Estonia are playing with this idea, and it could get stranger still. As Rob Peart talks about in his discussion of Singapore as a digital nation, subscription citizenship is an idea already in the air. The days of being a region-locked human are drawing to a close, though still too slowly for some (any technology available to expats should be equally available to refugees and other migrants). If we have to be data puppets, it might as well be manageable.

Scott Smith is founder of Changeist, a futures research studio based in Amsterdam. More at changeist.com or @changeist.