Who owns the future?

Occasionally a book will provide the opportunity for the reader to travel back in time and delve into the mind of an author that was thinking far ahead, at least as far as the reader’s present. What a pleasure to now read Jaron Lanier‘s Who Owns the Future? which was published in the months following reelyActive’s incorporation. Then was a time when we were thinking about humans’ place in a world of ubiquitous radio-identification and real-time location. Lanier was thinking about humans’ place in the evolving information economy. In 2015 we took a critical look back on our first ever pitch. In this blog post we’ll take a critical look back on our history in light of Lanier’s predictions and arguments, starting with the central premise of his book:

The foundational idea of humanistic computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network.

We’re off to a good start as this is directly in line with our long-established mission: to unlock the value of the data you choose to share. Nonetheless, our mission has often been a hard sell in the absence of a marketplace in which such contributions can actually be monetised. However we’re not alone in envisaging this as we discussed last year in Micro-transactions with macro-implications. And the notion that Data is Human is not without precedent either.

But how will the provenance of people’s contributions be captured and recorded?

Everyone will need to have a unique commercial identity in a universal public market information system. That contrasts with the way things work currently, where machines have unique identities, like IP addresses, but people don’t.

In 2013, the year the book was published, we were hard at work on the premise for people to have unique identities, not unlike IP addresses. Before Apple officially launched iBeacon, we demonstrated how the technology could be used in reverse to serve this exact purpose. A few months later, in a presentation entitled Advertise Yourself, we pitched this concept to industry leaders, including to those of tech’s Big Four, at Bluetooth World in Silicon Valley.

But who will administrate these unique personal identities?

This is one of those cases where you have to choose the least of evils. You might not like the idea of a universal online identity, but face it, if you don’t allow one to come about in the context of government, it will happen anyway through companies like Google and Facebook. You might like and trust these companies now more than you like or trust the government, but you should see what happens to tech companies as they age.

In 2017 we demonstrated how Google could use their Physical Web as a means for users to opt-in to a physical-digital identity, as well as how Facebook could leverage their mobile app to a similar, although likely less transparent, end. A year later, Google had killed off their Physical Web and Facebook was mired in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. You should see what happens to tech companies when they age indeed!

So when might we expect this all to turn around?

Another basic function of the design of power must be to facilitate long-term thinking. Is it possible to invest in something that will pay off in thirty years or a hundred, or is everything about the next quarter, or even the next quarter of a millisecond?

That’s a question we asked that same year in our post on creating the next computing industry. As Alan Kay, veteran of Xerox PARC (which did think long-term) and creator of the Dynabook (which inspired the iPad), wrote to us: “I’ve never heard of VCs being interested in time frames like that.”

So there’s no chance for a startup to bring to life this vision of the future?

[A] startup-driven scenario is not absolutely impossible. A new startup could conceivably gain more clout that Facebook, and then stay true to its original intent, goading a critical mass of other, older Siren Servers into a new, humanistic phase of activity.

A—funded—startup staying true to its original intent is easier said than done, which is perhaps why Lanier seems not overly optimistic about this scenario. However, there are emerging alternatives as we discuss in Purpose, commitment and accountability, specifically around rethinking ownership. It would be fair to say that we’ve embraced the arduous task of actually testing whether a startup-driven scenario is in fact not absolutely impossible.

Should we press on? How do we stay true?

Please do that, but please also stop once per hour and check yourself:   Are you still keeping people in the center?   Is it still all about the people?   Are you really avoiding the lazy trapdoor of falling back into thinking of people as components and a central server as being the only point of view for defining efficiency or testing efficacy?

Taking comfort in our alignment with Lanier’s hypothesis and predictions in this critical look back at our past seven years, we shall indeed press on, continuing to keep people in the centre of our vision for the future.   Who owns the future?   Perhaps reassuringly, there is still no consensus on the answer to that question!

Self-reflection: rethinking ownership

Can you imagine a near future where social media and the online experience are seamlessly integrated in your daily, physical life?

Can you imagine your tweets and public Instagram posts appearing as ephemeral “graffiti” on the growing number of digital displays you encounter on your commute, while shopping, even in public restrooms?

Can you imagine a handshake at a conference being enough for LinkedIn to propose to connect you to the other party?

Can you imagine a brick-and-mortar retailer greeting you where you left off your online search and assisting you on your in-store customer journey just the way you like to shop?

Mobile phones have blurred the line between “online you” and “real-world you”. The Internet of Things will almost certainly erase the line between the digital self and the physical self. It is therefore likely that you can imagine a near future where your online presence routinely influences your real-world experiences. Now, pause for a moment to decide how confident you feel about the corporate giants of social networking and technology delivering you that future. Hold that thought.

At reelyActive, we envisaged this future when the company was founded in 2012. Already then, we observed that people were willing to “advertise” their digital selves in select surroundings provided that (1) they could choose how they “advertised” themselves and (2) expect something beneficial in return.

Soon after, with the advent of mobile adoption of Bluetooth Low Energy, the phone in your pocket became, quite literally, your beacon. Critical mass of potential participants was reached years ago, we openly shared the formula, and yet our predictions of a brave social network empowering their user base with scenarios like the aforementioned fail to be realised.   Why?

The successful social media players of 2018 are all grown up now. Their current investors are interested in returns, not risk. Risking a business valued in the tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars pioneering an uncertain, albeit inevitable, future cannot be expected. But what if each company could put their founding purpose first, ahead of investor interests?

Would Twitter and Instagram today be competing to engage us with user-generated-content on digital signage?

Would LinkedIn have already eliminated the need to carry business cards once and for all?

Would Facebook be profiting as brick-and-mortar retail’s saviour as we argued they have the potential to become?

What an exciting time that would be! But how could shareholder value possibly take a backseat to a company’s core purpose?

This month, at the Pirate Summit in Cologne, we were pleased to discover the concept of steward-ownership, which notable European companies both young and old have successfully embraced. By retaining majority voting rights within the company and according profits to their purpose, steward-owned businesses can effectively prioritise long-term impact over short term returns. In other words, there are proven, viable structures for successful purpose-driven businesses.

Should we expect the leading social media companies to transition to alternative ownership structures to prioritise their purpose?   Probably not.   Should we expect this of the startups challenging the incumbents to introduce your digital self to every aspect of your daily life?   Here’s why we think so.

In the real world, you are free to choose what to wear, how you do your hair and how you present yourself to others. Would you reasonably expect the same freedoms for the digital you? Most certainly. Remember that thought we asked you to hold? How would you now feel about shareholder value having a stake in your freedom to “dress” your digital self and to choose when to invite your digital self to join you in the real world?

If we are to create the next computing industry, moving Beyond People-as-a-Product, including a harmonious and voluntary integration of the digital self, the next-generation businesses that will take us there will almost certainly need, as stated in the Purpose Economy‘s Steward Ownership guide, “patient financing and clear, legally defensible, alternative ownership structures to allow a company’s purpose to live on and thrive beyond their transition out of direct leadership and/or majority ownership.”

In other words, not only must the pioneering companies be prepared to rethink the business model, they must equally be prepared to rethink the ownership model.

Digital avatars in meatspace, and the absence thereof

Your mobile phone prompts you with an alert. You excuse yourself from your physical context to enter the digital realm. Is it a relief to escape to cyberspace or rather a nuisance to leave “meatspace”?

If you were born in the 20th century, you almost certainly recall the absence of a digital realm. At best a landline telephone might have transported you to a far away physical place to communicate with another human through the natural medium of voice. Like it or not, you once had to find comfort in meatspace — it’s all there was!

If you were born in the 21st century, you might not be able to fathom the absence of a digital realm. In fact you might not be able to fathom the absence of your digital self:  the avatar that emerged in cyberspace through countless interactions with the web and social media. Your generation was the first to grow up with a choice of realms in which to find comfort.

So, is it a relief when your mobile phone interrupts to invite you to join your digital self online? Regardless of your age, cyberspace has become quite comfortable, no? The online places that you visit know you and they treat you just the way you like. Of course they would: your avatar is unforgettable! It represents the very best of “you” and perhaps even more!

Now imagine instead that the notification on your mobile phone read as follows:

Would you like to invite your digital self to join you here?

How interesting would it be to have your avatar at your side right right now? Might your avatar select the perfect song to play next on the stereo by comparing its recent playlists with those of nearby avatars? Might your avatar cheekily post a recent tweet or Instagram pic of yours as graffiti on the next digital display you pass? Might the presence of your mighty avatar, the emergent ideal self, make you feel superhuman in your own skin?

Should it not be as fun to invite your avatar to meatspace as it has been for them to invite you to cyberspace? (as they so often do!)

Ironically, as we recently argued, such invitations may be postponed by reticence on the part of the companies that benefit so handsomely from our continued comfort in cyberspace! But one can only delay the inevitable so long…

Imagine the legacy of the Internet of Things generation: a baby born today may never be able to fathom the absence of digital avatars in meatspace!

“Advertise” yourself with The Physical Web, and beyond…

Would you wear a t-shirt that advertises a webpage?

Attend any tech conference and you’d be hard pressed not to spot one. In fact, most of us advertise company brands every day by much more than just the clothes we wear.

Now, would you wear a t-shirt that advertises YOUR webpage?

Why not? You are your own brand. Perhaps a t-shirt isn’t your preferred communication channel? How about a mobile app?

There you have it: within 30 seconds, you can be advertising your personal brand as a webpage via an Android application. And, more importantly, there’s a non-negligible chance that someone Nearby will take notice!

For those interested in the technology (or the nerdy featured image), it’s all standard: Android can advertise URLs in Eddystone packets over Bluetooth Low Energy. And our open source json-silo accepts the profile of any Person, Product or Place as schema.org and JSON-LD, and returns an Eddystone-friendly URL. When queried, the json-silo returns the profile name as the title, and the profile description in the meta, both of which are used by The Physical Web to present contextual notifications on mobile.

Contextual Notification on Nearby

In our previous blog post, we predicted:

this will be the year that a major social network empowers their users to “advertise” themselves in exchange for personalised everyday experiences

It’s technically possible. And the moment businesses start listening and responding to such ads, the incentives for both parties become undeniable. We’ve been preparing for that moment for a long time.

We are advertising!  The devices we carry and wear are already anonymously advertising our presence, and personalisation is inevitable. Here’s the question:  Are you listening?

OOH! A social media prediction for 2017

In 2016, we postulated that the Internet of Things may very well prove to be a personal brand ambassador for each and every one of us, given that the devices we carry and wear make it possible to “advertise” our digital selves to the physical places we visit. When the Local Search Association asked us and 50 experts about the future of location-based marketing and media we replied:

our prediction for 2017 is that the first major social network will empower their users to experiment with this feature

Technology is no longer the blocker, as you can “advertise” yourself with reelyApp using established standards as we described in detail months ago.

And we can already push the concept quite far in everyday life. We proved, with our partners, measurable ROI in retail with a live deployment that even triggers contextually-relevant videos on displays to shoppers:

Now extend that capability across a city. In anticipation of programmatic advertising, out-of-home (OOH) media companies are scrambling to adopt technologies that can measure real-world audiences in real-time. Such technologies will enable citywide marketplaces for the data you choose to share, as we presented at a recent Ericsson Smart Cities event:

All the emerging marketplace is missing is a critical mass of individuals with the incentive to “advertise” their digital selves. And a major social network is the ideal candidate to bring exactly that to the table.

We’re working to kindle that marketplace, engaging both sides of the table, and recently adding key enabling features to our Pareto platform, including programmatic content triggers. We even memed the personalised advertising scene from The Minority Report (2002) to serve as the default video content.

15 years ago, would you have predicted that we would today choose to carry and wear personal identification devices?

Are we right to predict that a major social network will empower such users to share what they want when they want in exchange for personalised everyday experiences? Let’s see what 2017 has in store, pun intended!

The IoT as your Brand Ambassador

Since the coining of the term Internet of Things in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, the IoT has been described in myriad ways. Just as was the case twenty years ago with the Internet, we have a habit of predicting the future of a technology by standing in the present looking forward. But what if we change that perspective and imagine ourselves in the future looking back at today? We did exactly that, as the following video shows.

For how many years have you been building your digital brand on the Internet? Take a moment to imagine your digital self.

In cyberspace, you’re known as your digital self, your digital brand. In “meatspace”, you’re known as your physical self, a brand that millions of years of evolution as social animals has hard-wired us humans to both advertise and recognise. We’ve adapted to live in both of these worlds. And, in our futuristic hindsight, the Internet of Things is arguably the Internet’s adaptation to join us in the “meatspace” world.

Last month we showed how The Physical Web just got Personal, how you can today advertise your digital self on the same scale as your physical self, whenever and wherever you choose. You already have in your hand (or on your wrist) the technology to advertise your digital brand. So when and how will the IoT emerge as your brand ambassador, calmly delivering the right information at the right place at the right time?

Fortunately, we’re not alone in asking that question. In The Bank of Personal Data we discussed how Dr. Roberto Minerva, like us, argues for a broker model. And when you consider how much of your digital brand is locked up in the siloed “vaults” of social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, e-commerce platforms from Amazon to niche brands, VC-backed grow-your-user-base-then-monetise apps, digital health platforms such as Fitbit and, of course, the almighty Google, expect an epic battle between these and emerging players to establish the dominant currency and exchange for this information, your information, in the real world in real time.

We conclude our video arguing that the (post-battle) IoT will make you a superhuman in the real world. It’s not the first time we’ve used that word, case in point our 2013 post IxD, the Superhuman and the Superorganism. Only recently, however, has the “how” come into focus, and we now see “what”, from a human perspective, the IoT may very well prove to be: a personal brand ambassador for each and every one of us.