Some days ago, a Google video “The Selfish Ledger” leaked: a futuristic thought experiment on how total data collection could reshape society. I believe it is a very interesting perspective on data collection that can lead to as many utopian as dystopian scenarios as you want.

There was an excellent coverage in The Verge, well done, so read that one first maybe. The same Verge article also includes a good context video here.

What I would like to offer here is a somewhat broader perspective on the whole issue.

The use of the word “Ledger” reminds me of course of the 2012 Digital Asset Grid project — in essence a collection of distributed ledgers of all sorts of data (not only personal data), a blockchain without blocks and without chains — that was already incorporating concepts like the intention economy of Doc Searls. With some goodwill one could interpret the “Resolution” concept in the Google video as some sort of intention.

In 2012 there was maybe a time window where Personal Data Stores could offer an alternative to the almighty GAFAS of this world, but that time has long been gone. The Google video also shows how outdated the GDPR legislation is. Today is not anymore about users giving consent, but about data having its own life and will. I could paraphrase Kevin Kelly’s “What does technology want?” into “What do my data want?”. Not that I believe that my data wants anything at all, but it gives you a zest of Google’s thought experiment.

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The key snippet from the video is where the human becomes the custodian — not the owner — of the data ledger, and can pass it on to next generations. The video suggests that data has it’s own intention, an intention to survive and pass on information to next generations. Like the Selfish Gene of Richard Dawkins (a book from 1976 ! that is also referred in the Google video). The Selfish Gene was published more than 40 ago, and since then the ideas of Dawkins have been quite critized.

The Google film also has a bit of the same alienating atmosphere, uncanny valley feel of Andy Curtis documentaries. Of course the documentary “The Century of Self” is the most relevant in this context.

It’s a series of 4 videos, together more than 3 hours of footage, but I strongly encourage you the watch it with the Google video as reference point.

Curtis depicts “how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” and refers a lot to the PR techniques developed at the time by Edward Bernays, who was using the corporate PR techniques, but now for governments wishing to influence the behaviour of their citizens.

Curtis also cites the words of Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in 1927:

“We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs”

The Google video seems inspired by that desire to train people to desire, whether that is buying stuff or realising resolutions. Still very much looking at the user as a consumer, which is an insult IMO. It also starts feeling very much like the Sesame Credit score, the Chinese government social rating system, a private credit scoring system developed by Ant Financial Services Group, an affiliate of the Chinese Alibaba Group, where in essence behaviour in line with the party line is rewarded, and behaviour not in line with that norm is punished. The critical question is of course who sets the norms and what are the intentions of those issuing these norms.

Also, what many discussions about personal data seem to omit, is that the data that are intentionally or unintentionally shared by users are only a very small snapshot of somebody’s data “ledger”. A lot is not shared at all: I would refer to these data as “The Unspoken”. The ideas, thoughts, concepts, models, desires, fears, etc that are unspoken, because they embarrass you, or because they have not yet been integrated in your personal narrative of who you are.

The Unspoken data are related to unspoken dreams, frustrations, fantasies, weird thoughts, shadows, memories, etc. In many cases personal secrets that you are too afraid to share as they expose your vulnerabilities. I have started making a list of The Unspoken that you can find here, and I kindly invite you to complement this list is you feel so. Who said again that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”?

On another dimension, I have been reading quite recently a couple of books that at first sight may seem unrelated to the subject at heart here.

  • Nora Bateson’s “Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing through other patterns”. A book about how thoughts, ideas, concepts and patterns are inter-relational and are passed from one generation to another.

The Google video is also inherent of Silicon Valley’s solutionism delusion; that if there is a problem to be solved, there is an app or an algorithm for it. This is finite game thinking as compared to infinite game thinking, as well described by James Carse.

I like Nora Bateson’s quote here:

The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.

And further in her book:

I see a great deal of misunderstanding — a great deal of information floating around, and even more being generated in the form of big data, little data, medium data. But not much in the forms of the warm data of interrelationality.

“Warm Data” is information about the interrelationships that integrate elements of a complex system. Information without interrelationality is likely to lead us toward actions that are misinformed, thereby creating further destructive patterns.

“Warm data”, I like that. I prefer that way more than selfish data.

Originally published at petervan.wordpress.com on June 6, 2018.

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