The Vote You Still Have Time to Make

The Power Digital Citizens Don’t Know They Have

My mailbox and neighbors’ yards are no longer cluttered with signs and flyers. Even the robocalls seem less persistent. Yes, another election season is over. But for every digital citizen, there is a critical vote just ahead — and few of us even understand we have this power.

For many years, I have watched in helpless horror as the companies I’ve let into my life — some by necessity, others by choice — have shown they are poor stewards of my data. Anthem. Facebook. Target. Google. Amazon. Even the IRS has reported massive data breaches.

Data I don’t even realize was taken from me is now scattered across databases around the world owned by companies I can’t name.

This is likely the case for you, too. It is the toll you and I pay for participation in our modern digital world.

But when I gaze across the dinner table at my children’s toothy grins as they tell me about a favorite new YouTube video or an online classroom assignment that inspired them, I can feel my inner mama bear seize hold of my heart.

What kind of adulthood awaits these beautiful young people if we don’t change our digital trajectory?

This is no longer about the negligence or misuse of a few identifying facts. Not only is every digital move we make tracked by various companies, but increasingly our physical and even physiological movements as well, via mobile phones, connected cars, wellness trackers, and connected homes. The data that we entrust to others now holds intimate detail about who we are and what we desire — and perhaps even how well our brains and bodies function, and why. We sign away the rights to this penetrating information via user agreements we don’t even read (researchers from Carnegie Mellon estimated that it would take 76 work days to read the privacy policies the average American encounters in a year).

This toll is too steep. To participate in modern life, we have become part of a terribly unbalanced system.

It is time for change. And there is alternative on the horizon. If we want to change the trajectory of our digital lives, we need to learn what’s coming, lend our voices, and understand the power we will have to actively vote this alternative into office.

Entrepreneurs are hard at work to leverage the same technology used to power cryptocurrency (called blockchains) to lay the rails for a new kind of digital world. They are looking to the same functionality used to protect new digital currencies (like Bitcoin) to give us back power over our own data. In the vision of the thousands of blockchain entrepreneurs (including the Web’s creator, Tim Berners-Lee, who has stepped down from a position at MIT to found a company in the space), we — not the companies that collect it — could own our own data. Companies would need to get our permission to use it.

Imagine this: one day, you could safely place an anonymized, encrypted version of your data in a “black box” on a blockchain. You own it — not a company. It’s essentially a personal data bank. You could use this bank to safeguard all kinds of data — from various devices and sensors, to commerce, search, and social network data — even academic accreditations and healthcare records. Your data has not only become yours, but it has become much more secure — and much more useful to you.

In a banking relationship, the bank holds your money, but does not spend it at their discretion — it is yours. You decide how it is spent. With your own data bank, in the vision of early entrepreneurs, a digital citizen gets to choose how their data is used. You choose who or what uses your data, granting access only as necessary (and rescinding it at any time). Whether this entity can attribute this data to your physical world identity is up to you. You can even choose to sell your data to a brand, or donate it to a research study you support. Blockchain entrepreneurs term this “self-sovereign identity” because it lives outside of the sovereign of any central organization or state — instead, the consumer is at the controls.

Sounds dreamy, right?

But here’s a key problem: even as hundreds of startups race to make this vision a reality, it’s a very long time before the experience of using these products will be anywhere near as seamless as what we are accustomed to from today’s products. Incumbents have had years for armies of designers, engineers, and user experience specialists to hone our digital experiences. They’ve invested heavily in keeping us engaged and friction-free. In some cases, they are using our own data to deftly administer dopamine and serotonin hits that reward us continuously for continual attention and engagement.

The new players, meanwhile, are bravely wrangling a still-raw technology, experimental business models, and solving new user experience challenges from scratch. The early versions that they present us with will not be, let’s face it, as pretty or easy to use.

But when these early products are introduced to market, we need to take the extra time to consider them, and actively seek out those that deserve our support. A decision to use an new alternative is a vote against the unbalanced power that has become our norm.

Every time I wade through my voter information guides, poring over confusing prose and researching rationale for each proposition, I am struck by the similarities.

The time it takes to become an educated voter is significant. But I prioritize it — even as it competes for my time with demands of client work, my need for sleep, and a family that needs dinner — because I hope for a better future. While I understand my single vote will not sway an election, I believe that this investment is an important role of being a citizen. That together, a community can be powerful — and it’s my civic duty to contribute to a better collective whole.

Technology does not make a market. People make a market. When you pull up a browser to search the internet, when you stand on a street corner and use your phone to get a car, when you post on social media, you are voting.

We are voting continually, every day, by the choice of products and services we use. As blockchain-driven alternatives start to move into the market — not only offering to protect our data but to fight fake news or share value more equitably — we will have new options on the ballot.

We need to examine these options carefully to ensure they are truly worthy of our vote — something new to today’s impatient digital consumer. These new options may not start off particularly refined, but they may offer a future that is better for our world. If we want to change the trajectory of our digital lives, we need to take these votes seriously. One vote will not change our world, but the collective whole offers hope of a more sustainable digital future.

About the Author

Alison McCauley is CEO and Founder of Unblocked Future, a strategist, and author of ‘Unblocked:How Blockchains will Change Your Business. She has focused on the intersection of human behavior and emerging technology with 20 years of consulting to over 100 technology-first startups and Fortune-500 companies. Follow her on Twitter @unblockedfuture.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +393,714 people.

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