Guest post written by Simon Jones, Co-founder of ONTY.
The extent of communications today, mediated between now-uncountable connected devices, is so impossible to appreciate that awe has given over to banal. The possibilities created by such largely costless technological advances as instant global publishing (from text to photo to video) are so large and their rate of accretion is so high that acknowledging what is happening is not really possible. There’s just been so much in such a short time. Just a cat’s lifetime. Perhaps it explains the millennial blasé.
So, a new, giant machine is with us. Impossible to know, truly know, and certainly difficult to recognise. Yet undeniably powerful. But it’s got to be paid for. Something else which is, or perhaps was, associated with blasé is the notion of selling yourself to fund this machine; selling the picture of ourselves that we sketch, resketch, touch-up and embellish every day, every time we interact with any recording, measuring, probing connected device, and that includes such input-passive processes as just having a phone in your pocket or driving a modern car.
This appropriated user data monetisation model, exploiting the picture of you gathered explicitly or, less palatably, often by stealth, has plenty issues in itself, ones that have been deeply discussed elsewhere. Be those as they may be; there are other, less instantly obvious consequences. One important, less considered effect is that the economic framework of prostituting your user data to pay for your communication services has defined the nature of the services themselves. By and large, it has prevented alternative media and tools from coming online as the current dogma (aka business model) doesn’t allow for them.
Some very basic and long fought-for human rights do not sit well with user data monetisation. Such concepts as privacy, control, autonomy and hence freedom. I include the latter as it requires the first three. It is increasingly becoming clear that freedom is now incongruous with respect to the internet business status quo. Very significant ethical / moral arguments are now ensuing. Renata Sampson of Big Brother Watch, on the recent BBC radio doc ‘The Online Identity Crisis’, commented “there is no way now that you can pretend you haven’t had a thought process if you’ve typed it in online.” Once cogitated, once terrified.
Alongside the undeniable moral can of worms we’ve typed, clicked, tapped and swiped our way into, the neglect of rights such as privacy means that, despite the huge potential reach of our communication today, the types of that communication available to us are actually stymied. To communicate without the ability to be private in that communication is to restrict your degree of control of that communication. Communication, and all its bedfellows like research, networking, learning, bonding, matching, connecting, teaching, assisting, contributing… loving can be profoundly influenced by or be dependent upon all these rights. We are stripped of confidence when we cannot contact in confidence. We are intimidated when each and every one of our probes is recorded and stored beyond our control. Many questions then go unasked when we know everyone hears the question. We have, in fact, accidentally built a form of digital-data-totalitarianism. The GDPR is no pre-emption.
Social media’s what have you got to hide?-ism prefers a basic broadcast function on the communication / publishing platforms we now depend on. Targeting, filtering and selection are difficult or impossible using these tools. Exhibiting ONTY on a stand at Thinking Digital recently, someone said something so profound to me which exemplifies this perfectly: “We had a miscarriage last year, it was very difficult. I couldn’t go to my Facebook profile with that, that’s too much, too many people. With ONTY I would have been able to contact anyone on my street who’d experienced this, in confidence.” So that’s the first point of our work, ONTY. It’s to enable the opening up of communication channels on a basis of privacy and confidence. Match yourself with what you want to know, do, offer, give or receive. Make yourself matchable in the process. And to do this to the fullest extent possible, this time you have to be private. You have to be autonomous. You have to be in control. You might imagine specialist rose growers trying to find each other on the web, Facebook springs to mind, but also other excellent services like MeetUp or specialised forums. But what if you were bipolar and had discovered rose growing to be particularly beneficial; you’d be less likely to use the web tools we have today to try and connect. It doesn’t have to be so personal. Imagine the effect of being empowered at work by being able to ask a question privately.
So this is a very serious consequence of how our digital communication platforms have evolved; they don’t allow you to ask a question of only those who know the answer; they don’t allow for selective search/match; they don’t allow you to control your own selective matchability. You have a single moulded digital identity and you may not express the true plurality of self. It doesn’t sit well with user data monetisation. But of course that is not why this data disenfranchisement exists. It’s there so you transfer all your data exploitation rights over to the platform owner. We’ve got big plans for that too.