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Digital Lifestreams: Reclaiming Our Online Identity

Series: A Human-Centric Paradigm for the Web

Article Six (of Six)

Richard Whitt, Todd Kelsey

November 2020

“Your reaction to the datafication of life should not be to retreat to a log cabin in the woods, for they too are full of sensors; but to aggressively seek control of the data that matters to you. It’s good to have recommenders that find what you want and bring it to you; you’d feel lost without them. But they should bring you what you want, not what someone else wants you to have.” — Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm

Where We’ve Been

In the previous five articles, we have examined the computational systems that increasingly govern our daily lives. Article one called for replacing the Web’s current SEAMs paradigm (feedback cycles of surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation), with a new HAACS ethos (enhancing human autonomy and agency, via computational systems). Article two introduced us to Carla, a typical Web user, and showed how corporate and governmental entities employing SEAMs cycles can reduce our human freedom in the world. New digital intermediaries, grounded in the common law of fiduciaries and trusts, were proposed in response, including personal digital fiduciaries (in article three), health data trusts (article four), and community data trusts (article five).

As these articles have emphasized, our society is beset by enormous and ever-growing power asymmetries. These asymmetries are no accident — in part, they are the product of centuries of efforts by entrenched entities to gain control over finite resources: finance, land, and labor. The computational systems that have arisen in the early 21st Century appear to be replicating this historic pattern of power through extraction. Algorithms and devices and applications now are being deployed by some as cutting-edge methods to extract the newest prized economic resource: our data.

Where We Can Go

This article focuses on challenging the prevailing ways that SEAMs-based companies develop user profiles that, in Domingos’ phrasing, “datafy” each of us. The gist: we can let someone else’s financial imperatives define the whole of our digital identities — or we can realize and act upon the immense potential for creating something far more.

As we learned from Donatella Meadows in article one, the most radical shifts come when a dominant paradigm is confronted head-on, and we face its “great big unstated assumptions.”[1] This opportunity arises when we work with active change agents to construct the foundations of new paradigms. Consistent with that perspective, this series has explored developing digital ecosystems based on the HAACS ethos (human autonomy/agency via computational systems), to help protect, enhance, and promote our best interests.

When it comes to data, we as a society should move decisively beyond the SEAMs paradigm, by building new governance and technologies that incorporate the full depth and richness of human life. As a counterpoint to the prevailing exploitative nature of “SEAMs data,” the HAACS ethos supports a new approach: what we call here our digital lifestreams. This can be conceived as the potential universe of data points that can be recognized, captured, and generated about us as human beings — but in ways that we can participate in and help define. The trusted entities we have explored in previous articles — such as digital fiduciaries and data trusts — can help us unlock that vast, untapped potential.

But first — how does the SEAMs paradigm reduce us to commodified user profiles?

Our Data — But On Their Terms

Perhaps few words in the 21st Century have been so widely employed, debated, misunderstood, and abused than “data.” While its provenance extends back several hundred years — well before the annals of modern computer science — data from the beginning has been a rhetorical concept, deriving much of its meaning from the times.[2] Indeed, for some 200 years, the notional West and global North have been building a world based on the collection and analysis of data.[3]

Most people believe that their digital presences are represented by the content they share online — posts to social media, and other forms of communication such as email and messaging apps. They may also have a presence on multiple social platforms, contribute to a blog, or even own a website.

But online, we are not just the content we voluntarily contribute. We are also the data traces that we leave in our wake as we search and surf and purchase and connect. If we consider the whole of our gathered data, there is far more there, and in much greater detail, than many might imagine.

Our Presence in Marketing Databases

A significant amount of information gleaned about us exists in marketing and advertising and sales databases, scattered far and wide throughout countless networks. The landscape of “martech,” and all the interconnected databases, is increasingly difficult to map from one year to the next.

Source: https://chiefmartec.com/2020/04/marketing-technology-landscape-2020-martech-5000/ — “Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic (2020): Martech 5000 — really 8,000, but who’s counting?”

If you dig very deeply into the map, you might see some familiar logos:

In general, the complexity of the martech landscape makes it all but impossible for any individual to successfully and completely map out the locations for all their acquired data. What we do know, however, is that data is gathered in many places — sold, resold, and pooled. Data scraped from the Web can be aggregated to form a detailed data profile about that individual, in order to target advertisements and other pitches to her, and otherwise influence her behaviors and actions. Information contained in these data profiles may be used as well for credit scoring, employment checks, insurance assessments, and other purposes.

Developing a clear-eyed view of the way data is handled in marketing databases can be a good first step in seeking to better understand the potential for a deeper, richer digital identity. Next, we will step back to briefly consider the fundamental nature of data in the hands of entities utilizing exploitative SEAMs cycles (surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation).

Dehumanizing Data: Why the Status Quo Doesn’t Capture Our Full Humanity

The authors of Data Feminism have made plain “the close relationship between data and power.”[4] Today, the thing we call data increasingly is being defined for society by corporations and governments with their own stakes in the outcome.[5] Entities that employ SEAM cycles (surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation) often seek to commodify us. Some value or convenience may be provided in the exchange, but typically the emphasis is on pursuing profits, and extracting as much value as possible from our data, without necessarily seeking to return fair value, or any compensation beyond convenience. Yet the economic value of the data can be seen in the balance sheets and market capitalizations of companies.

A key drawback to these extractive processes is the failure to capture our full humanity — including our relational and contextual selves. After all, our lived reality as human beings is a unique bundle of experiences and interactions and relationships. One can perceive of this as a fluid mix of the past (my memory), the present (my moments), and the future (my intentionalities). My hopes, fears, and aspirations are woven together with the experiences of others — family, friends, strangers, communities of interest.

This feeling of autonomy and self-determination, as represented in the action of agency, “is what makes us most fully human and thus most able to lead deeply satisfying lives — lives that are meaningful and constructive — perhaps the only lives that are worth living.”[6] One suggested term for this human experience of the (potentially) meaningful flow of space and time is the individual’s lifestreams.

By contrast, data mining and other extraction with economic motives can leave out the rich context of social relationships and personal value that we otherwise impart to our lives. As a result, the ongoing “quantification” of human beings as mere numbers does not fully or accurately represent us. The technical nature of the computational system also can influence the way the data is interpreted. Moreover, one’s “personal” data is not standalone, but instead intertwined with the data from countless other human beings, from family to friends to complete strangers. As D’Ignazio and Klein summarize these downsides:

“The process of converting life experience into data always necessarily entails a reduction of that experience — along with the historical and conceptual burdens of the term…. And there are problems that cannot be represented — or addressed — by data alone.”[7]

Reclaiming Our Digital Lifestreams

So if we consider our online presence, recognizing both the elements we want to comprise it, and elements we wish to reclaim, what are we to do? No single tool can reveal to us the full extent of data that has been gathered about us. (But perhaps there should be such a service). Furthermore, what if we want to go beyond the status quo — not just reclaiming control over our data, but considering what kind of digital identity we actually want to have?

The digital lifestreams concept contains an implicit invitation for us to embrace, and not shun, the computational technologies that collect and digitize and analyze real-world information. The distinguishing factor is that these technologies always should work with the actual human being in control and in charge. In this way, digital lifestreams are a pronounced alternative to the manipulative SEAMs cycles (surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation). New platforms supporting digital lifestreams can provide an alternative to the status quo of passively allowing companies to extract value from our personal data.

The potential universe of digital lifestreams well exceeds the cramped versions of ourselves that show up in today’s hidden databases. We can recognize the constraints that today’s databases place upon a fuller expression of our human potential. As one example, simply by beginning to gather the many fragments of our online presence, scattered far and wide, we can fashion digital artifacts to tell our life story, on our own terms.

If we so choose, we can go beyond these initial steps, to develop a richer, fuller online identity.

Considering Virtual Portraits

So far in this article we have seen how many Web entities utilize SEAM cycles (surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation) to extract data from our online actions and interactions, and typically use such data for commodifying and manipulative goals. We have also introduced an alternative: the concept of developing digital lifestreams, which can involve gathering and curating data from our lives to form our meaningful selves. This process could be as simple as one desires, or to comprise as much of one’s life as possible, in all its richness and complexity. But what path can we take to capture that level of complexity?

One option is to go beyond the crude snapshot of a user profile assembled from database records, and consider instead the nature of a painted portrait. Unlike the ones and zeroes that represent a mere “user,” a portrait implies a deeper, richer, more complex representation of that same person. Such a portrait could tell many things about someone, and more truly represent their person. Developing this online identity, so that it is more reflective of ourselves, could be considered a virtual portrait.

Extending the analogy further: if the relevant data in our digital lifestreams constitutes a set of paints, we can paint our virtual portrait any way we want. Other people in our lives also could help us compose this rich, ever-changing picture. In the process, we may need to reclaim some of our data, or develop new information flows on our own: take photographs, write something down, record a video, scan pictures, etc.

Like the magical paintings in the Harry Potter books, a virtual portrait can also be active. Future technologies may open additional doors, such as developing a digitized persona powered by artificial intelligence (AI). Other emerging technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), may enable much fuller expressions of online identity, including more sophisticated 3D environments.

The open-ended concept of virtual portraits suggests that we don’t have to accept the limits or constraints of the Web’s SEAMs cycles (surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation), and the ways we are currently commodified online. We can think differently, and create virtual selves on our own terms. It would be our choice.

In order to more fully consider the concept of digital lifestreams, and how we can develop virtual portraits, we’ll rejoin Carla on her journey of considering all the data in her life.

Carla’s Data: Past, Present and Future

Carla has survived Covid-19, and is thankful to be alive. At home, during the quarantine, Carla joins the masses of people taking the opportunity to sort through their things and discard what they don’t really need. As she unpacks dusty boxes and photo albums, she comes across pictures from her grandfather on an old camera disk, in a format she can’t seem to access. But Carla remains determined to pull together her most precious data: her digital artifacts.

Carla realizes that there is a great deal of data about her, scattered in many places. But how can she even begin to map it all out? Where is it located, how is it formatted, who has control over it, how can she access it? Where does she even start?

Carla starts by talking to her friends. She then decides to host a small gathering with social distancing at her home.

Her guests are:

· her brother Charles, who is a curator at the local historical society and museum

· her niece Ada, a business/economics major

· Ada’s boyfriend DeShawn, a computer science major

Carla has been thinking quite a bit about the many roles of data in her life, and wants to get more perspective. She asks each guest to share some thoughts.

The Perspective of a Historian

Charles: “As a museum curator, my job is to help gather and preserve our town’s historical heritage. But it’s not just about objects collected and displayed in a museum; those objects are artifacts, that once were part of a family and community at some point in time. An archaeologist or historian rescues things from the past. Now, as our society digitizes more and more of human experience, we need to consider a whole new field of data archaeology. The more digital artifacts we generate, the more questions that arise. How are we going to preserve all this data? What happens when current formats no longer exist? What steps will society take to preserve our past? And who decides what is kept, and what is lost?

-

The field of digital preservation is tasked with preserving digital artifacts for the future. As it turns out, much of our global cultural heritage, and our own individual and social history, is at serious risk of disappearing.[8] The nature of technology can leave us with our digitized content slipping away into oblivion, as new formats arise and our society’s memories become trapped in obsolete formats. Vint Cerf, a co-inventor of the Internet, has pointed to the possibility that we may be currently living in what will become known as a “digital dark ages.” This means that our present data may become inaccessible in the future.

Unless we take action to provide more continuity and preservation for data, future historians may well end up knowing less about the early 21st Century than we now do about the early 20th Century.[9] As individuals, our past memories and digital artifacts are also scattered around the Web, residing on disparate cloud platforms and subject to the whims of their terms of service. Without making a concerted effort to collect and preserve these digital memories, we may well lose many of them.

The Perspective of an Economist

Ada: “Recently for my course research, I’ve been reading up on the ways that economists think about data. Business people talk about it as a new form of oil, or some other resource to extract and monetize. I don’t necessarily agree with conceiving data as a commodity, but that’s how the market sees it. The winning company seemingly is one with the most data. As one pushback, I’ve heard some folks proposing that users gain the right to monetize their own data. While that sounds more fair, it just seems to play right back into the “data as oil” mindset. Personally, I prefer the idea of people having more control over access to their personal data, and then letting them decide how it is to be defined, shared, analyzed, monetized — or not.”

-

Under traditional economic principles, data is classified as a type of good — with some interesting and even unique characteristics. Perhaps the most surprising is that data is a non-rivalrous good. This means that anyone can utilize a piece of data, without necessarily reducing its overall value. In fact, multiple uses of the same data, whether individual or collective, can increase its overall utility and value.

So, one’s data can actually gain value every time it is shared and re-used. This makes data more like a renewable essence, like sunshine, rather than an extractive commodity, like oil. More importantly, this attribute of non-rivalry suggests that we users can find many more valuable ways to share and put our data to use — whether for financial gain, societal benefit, or any other reasons — than any single siloed platform provider can muster on their own narrow terms.

The Perspective of a Computer Scientist

DeShawn: “The way I think of data is the way computers treat it: translating analog inputs from our lives, into digital form. We type in some letters, they become ones and zeros; we take a picture, it becomes bits and bytes. Sometimes I wonder, can our ‘analog’ lives really be reduced down to a few binary digits? Even as a fan of computers and their amazing power, I think there are limits to what they can actually render.

On the other hand, the future is coming at us fast. As AI continues to advance, we’ll soon be seeing augmented and mixed reality, neural implants, smart cities, quantum computing, and so much more. The digital world is here to stay, becoming more pervasive and blending further into our daily lives. This also means that society needs to be thinking right now about the rules of the road — before someone else writes them for us.”

-

As computational systems continue to advance and expand their reach, the governing institutions of corporations and governments alike seem largely content with the online rules of “userhood” (see article two) they have established for the rest of us. These entities are all too eager to extend those same limited concepts to the novel digital spaces they are creating. Even with helpful policy measures like data protection regulations, the focus usually is on making incremental improvements to the status quo.

Under these coming technologies, humans will remain “users,” still subject to the SEAMs cycles of control and influence (surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation). There is still time, however, to insist that the future not simply replicate the drawbacks of data past and data present.

A More Human Alternative: Virtual Portraits

Carla: “I can hear what each of you is saying. But I sense that there is more to our data than if we look at it from just one angle. When I consider the whole of my data, it feels commodified, and fragmented, and incomplete. As if all the pieces that are supposed to represent me are scattered around in too many systems. And the further I looked into it, it didn’t seem to really make up my true self at all.

I love music. To me, my online identity could be like the notes linked together on a music sheet, coming to life with an orchestra to create melodies and harmonies, rhythms and crescendos. That particular story of my data, that musical score, isn’t really being told right now. There’s data about me in databases but I don’t hear the music in it. I make some posts on social media, but I haven’t really put it all together to convey what is truly important to me.

I also enjoy art. And right now, I just don’t see myself fully portrayed in all the data about me. When I see how I’m represented in databases, I’m just a series of data points, that someone else grabs and uses to define me for their own purposes. I want more of a portrait about myself: a virtual portrait. As I work on developing my life story and digital identity, I want it to be fuller and richer, as if an artist was capturing not just the way I look to others, but who I really am.

I don’t want to be just a cog in someone else’s machine. No software engineer or algorithm should be able to define who I am. I know there are many challenges to protecting my identity online. With all the thorny issues of privacy and security, and the Web companies who control my data for their own purposes, I will need some help to build a protective barrier around me. But beyond the necessity of protecting myself, I also want to ensure that I am being represented in my own way. I will need some help, to gather up all my existing digital artifacts, pictures and posts, and begin developing my own life story. I think I need some assistance with painting my virtual portrait, from the bottom up.

So, where do I begin?”

Resources for Managing our Digital Lifestreams

In order to empower people to take a greater role in managing their digital lifestreams, new tools, systems, and services will need to be developed. These include conventional tools used in new ways, as well as entirely novel platforms and services. These offerings could include some of the areas explored in this series, such as digital fiduciaries, who could serve as trusted digital agents.

Collectively, these entities and offerings could help us manage our digital lifestreams, and develop a fuller expression of our online identities. Briefly, three ways of empowering us in these realms are the development of data fluency, data archaeology, and data continuity.

Data fluency

In order to consider what it is we might want from new platforms and systems in the future, it would be useful to develop a certain amount of data fluency. This is not just a matter of adopting more advanced technical skills, or understanding how businesses utilize data. We should also consider the implications of pervasive SEAMs cycles (surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation), including the amount of wealth that companies derive from our data, and its true monetary (and non-monetary) value to us.

With greater data fluency, we can better determine how we want to manage access to that data, whether on our own or with the assistance of specialized agents, like digital fiduciaries. Increased data fluency can also help us to build more inclusive and balanced systems from the ground up.

Data archaeology

A second area where digital agents can help us is the imperative to examine our own digitized information and content, existing in many forms and formats in our homes, and scattered among disparate online networks. We might consider it a form of data archaeology. People will increasingly find themselves wanting to rescue something that is meaningful to them, as well as make it shareable with others. Because of the many technical details, we likely will need easy-to-use tools and outside assistance, not just in rescuing and digitizing, but also in curating and preserving.

Data continuity

A third area where digital agents can assist us is data continuity: securing our personal information so that it is accessible in the future. Regardless of where and when our data is located, the systems may not be designed to evolve into future-proof formats. This means that our data may be locked into a soon-to-be obsolete format. How can we rescue such data, such as our most precious family stories or files, and ensure that it can be accessible to future generations?

Where Do We Go From Here?

In this article series, we have sought to raise questions, explore issues, and propose new paradigms with viable and sustainable real-world impact. We have also suggested some specific options for moving forward, such as digital fiduciaries and Personal AIs. But we want to go beyond asking questions and developing concepts; we believe these conversations should lead to actual projects.

Therefore, we have decided to extend the series, and set forth some specific ideas for individuals, communities, organizations, and companies to consider. We’ll identify some inclusive proposals that we hope will attract interest, comment, debate — and ultimately, the resources required to become tangible products and services. If you appreciate the aims of this article series, please read article seven. (It will go live at https://whitt.medium.com/ in December 2020).

Conclusion

“Control of data and ownership of the models learned from it is what many of the twenty-first century’s battles will be about — between governments, corporations, unions, and individuals.” — Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm

Those coming battles are not inevitable. Nor should we hand victory to the most powerful companies and governments, simply by declining to challenge their foundational paradigms. For those who demand more from our digital existences, we can proactively build ecosystems that serve our best interests. The entities we employ to govern these ecosystems could be for-profit, or not-for-profit, or a combination of both. The crucial link is an ethos that cultivates human trustworthiness and support, as well as one that informs the countless decisions these entities will make on their clients’ behalf.

Our digital lives can be reclaimed in viable and sustainable ways. If individuals, communities, and organizations of all kinds work together, the current SEAMs paradigm (surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation) can give way to a better data past, present, and future. Where we ordinary human beings can use computational systems to enhance our freedom to think, and to interact, and to pursue our dreams.

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For more information on the GLIAnet project, please visit www.glia.net.

The Author gratefully acknowledges:

— Art contribution by Martha Sperry

— Article series supported by Omidyar Network

[1] Donatella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (2008), at 145.

[2] Daniel Rosenberg, Data Before the Fact, in Lisa Gitelman, ed., “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron (2013), 15, at 36–37. See also Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F, Klein, Data Feminism (2020), at 10 (the word “data” was introduced in the mid-17th Century to supplement pre-existing terms such as “evidence” and “fact.”).

[3] Geoffrey C. Bowker, Foreword, in Yanni Alexander Loukissas, All Data Are Local: Thinking Critically in a Data-Driven Society (2019), at ix.

[4] D’Ignazio and Klein, Data Feminism, at 12.

[5] Whitt, Hiding in the Open, at 66–70.

[6] Chirkov, Sheldon, and Ryan, Introduction: The Struggle for Happiness and Autonomy in Cultural and Personal Contexts: An Overview, at 1.

[7] D’Ignazio and Klein, Data Feminism, at 11.

[8] Richard Whitt, “Through a Glass, Darkly” — Technical, Policy, and Financial Actions to Avert the Coming Digital Dark Ages, Santa Clara High Technology Law Journal, Vol. 33:2 117 (2017).

[9] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31450389

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