Anticipating the Social Dilemma

Three days ago, on September 9th, 2020, Netflix released The Social Dilemma which “explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” A recurring theme in the eye-opening documentary-drama hybrid is how technology is manipulated to disconnect “users” from their own reality, and to predict and influence their behaviour. This disconnect is essentially what the co-founders of reelyActive attempted to represent with the first slide of our first pitch deck at the FounderFuel accelerator in 2012:

We kicked off that pitch arguing that our information is increasingly becoming digital, but the human world isn’t digital!   Did we correctly anticipate The Social Dilemma?   In this post, we’ll journey from 2012 forward to the present day to revisit our thoughts and actions on this subject.

In 2013 we blogged about Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt (oh, do we have your attention now?) where we argued that

As long as digital expression is curated by physical presence, we would expect [individuals to abide by the norms of real-world social interaction].

That year we created the aptly named Log in to Life experiment which flipped the industry paradigm, enabling digital content to accompany one’s physical presence. Demonstrating this at StartupFest was key to us securing a trip to the Startup World Finals in SF later that year, where we toured Facebook, to which we hinted Facebook, you might “like” this. That same week we won the title World’s Best Startup with the following pitch:

Indeed, the Internet of Things seemed poised as the catalyst for The Age of Hyperlocal Context in which we were not alone in arguing that

it seems self-evident that we should own our own data and that any third-party should need our permission to use it.

In 2014 all the technologies were finally in place for a manifestation of Log in to Life to scale, which we pitched to industry players in our “Advertise Yourself” keynote at Bluetooth World. We felt the shift from Smart Phones to Smart Spaces was set to begin, as we illustrated in the following video which long graced our landing page:

Should technology interrupt us from living in the present moment? Of course not!

In 2015 we crafted our first privacy policy in line with our mission, which concluded with:

Wish we had more to tell you but honestly, we really want to have as little as possible to do with your personal information aside from enabling you to share it when you want, where you want and with whom you want!

Of course, championing the notion that your data is your data was, and sadly still is, far from conventional. In The Bank of Personal Data we quoted Roberto Minerva at the IoT World Forum in Milan, where we published more of our research, jokingly responding to our question about managing personal data:

You put your money in a bank, and the bank acts as a broker for you, investing your money as you see fit. But the money always belongs to you. Of course this is not always the case in Italy…

Indeed, as The Social Dilemma confirmed for personal data, neither is this always the case in the technology industry…

In 2016 we were prompted to ask the question, is reelyActive a social network?

The answer: No. “Where we think we’ll have an impact is on the future of social networking.” And we speculated on that future with The IoT as your Brand Ambassador.

The IoT acts as our real-time brand ambassador, compiling the relevant information beyond our limited scope and calmly delivering it to us in our here and now.

By 2017, there was no reason why a social network could not reconnect their “users” with their physical reality and context, and we predicted that 2017 would be the year one would do just that. Moreover, we demonstrated how Google had inadvertently created the underlying technology to “Advertise” yourself with the Physical Web, and beyond…. However, whenever we’d meet at conferences, Scott Jenson, then head of the Physical Web, would always specify that “Google does not intend it to be used for that.”

So why wasn’t this happening? Why weren’t we Creating the next computing industry? In an e-mail exchange with Alan Kay that same year, he argued that

“the goodness of the results is most highly correlated with the goodness of the funding”

Indeed that was representative of our experience as a technology startup in the 2010s: there was no shortage of available funding, but, alas, no longer the good funding characteristic of the era when Kay was successfully “inventing the future”.

By the end of the year, Facebook boasted 2 billion monthly active users to which we argued—in vain—for the sake of a struggling retail industry, Facebook, it’s time to “share” your view of the customer.

In 2018 we wondered about Digital avatars in meatspace, and the absence thereof and the economic model Beyond People-as-a-Product. And then we began to observe a refreshing shift in attitudes, especially in Europe where we attended the Pirate Summit. This provoked Self-reflection: rethinking ownership where we imagined the world we’d live in today if the likes of Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook weren’t beholden to shareholder value.

what if each company could put their founding purpose first, ahead of investor interests?

We attempted to transition reelyActive to steward-ownership to enshrine our founding purpose but were again met with a dearth of good funding to pursue such good results. Our team did however sign The Copenhagen Letter which enshrines our values as a technology company at the service of humanity.

Perhaps there was Still Place for optimism?

In 2019 our traditional April Fool’s post, 5G and the Digitally Conjoined Twin, where personal data was stored in a computer literally strapped to one’s arm, had become more satire than tongue-in-cheek.

“With this setup I can literally pull the plug on my data at any time. It’s a USB cable connected to a power pack.”

We committed to full transparency on How we observe both online and physical behaviour.

At the Collision conference, we adopted the view that Data is Human, and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant:

“Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end.”

Finally, we found solidarity with the tenets of Who owns the future? by Jaron Lanier, who, unsurprisingly, features prominently in The Social Dilemma.

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.

And now in 2020, what can we say looking back with 20/20 (ugh) hindsight?   Did we anticipate The Social Dilemma?   Yes.   Did we advocate for and work tirelessly towards a human-centric alternative?   Yes.   Did we share this openly with the likes of Facebook, Google and the public?   Yes.   Is there still cause for optimism?   Yes.   Why?

As Buckminster Fuller (who tops our bibliography) wisely argued:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

If you’ve read this far (thank you!) you’ve surely gained a strong sense that we champion a new model where:

  • your data is your data
  • digital serves to enhance the physical human experience
  • contributing entities enshrine purpose over profit

And, as The Social Dilemma suggests, there’s never been a better time than now to make that new model a reality—a human-centric future as our collective reality.

Data is Human

“It’s up to smart humans to stop being stupid about AI.” That was the title of what we’d argue was the most impactful talk at Collision 2019 in Toronto. A single slide of three words eloquently summarises the challenge and opportunity of our era: Data is Human.

The presenter, Christian Beedgen, went on to connect this concept with a quote from Immanuel Kant:

“Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end.”

Combined, the implication is as follows:

When we consider that data is simply data, it is easy, even generally accepted, to treat data as a means to an end.

When we consider that data is human, we are confronted with the ethical dilemma of treating humans as a means to an end.

The challenge of our era is to consider that data is human despite the opportunity of, for instance, the lucrative advertising-revenue models of immensely successful Web 2.0-generation businesses which rely on data as a means to an end.

Imagine if industry did indeed consider data to be human and treated it as such. Would we have had the occasion to write the following blog posts over the course of the past six years?

— We need to move Beyond people-as-a-product [2018].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

— We should take care to treat The IoT as your Brand Ambassador [2016].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

Society can HOPE for a better Link [2016].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

— There’s a strong case for The Bank of Personal Data [2015].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

— There’s a legitimate fear of Big Brother and the Identity of Things [2013].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

Of course, all too often, industry continues to treat data in the manner that is most convenient, not necessarily that which is most appropriate. This is even more concerning in light of the Internet of Things, where humans generate orders of magnitude more data, often unknowingly.

In fact, our cheeky April Fool’s post introduced the concept of the “Digital Conjoined Twin”, arguably the ultimate manifestation of data being human. Will industry practices drive people to a point where they will go so far as to host their own data on their person? Almost certainly not, assuming that companies embrace, in earnest, the concept that data is human.

However, if companies continue to treat user data as a means to an end, the consequence may well be their users finding a means, however extreme, to end the relationship. It’s up to smart humans to avoid that outcome.

Still Place for optimism?

Yesterday we attended our fourth Place Conference, held in NYC a little further uptown than our first Place back in 2014. Back then the conference had a strong focus on all the latest mobile location and proximity technologies that were expected to revitalise retail. There was an air of optimism around the Bluetooth beacon and similar innovations which held much promise to deliver delightful, contextual, brick-and-mortar experiences for a broad consumer base increasingly expecting personalisation.

At the 2018 edition, it didn’t take long to realise that this optimism had not simply faded, but completely vanished. The first and only mention of a beacon did not occur until the fourth presentation: a panel entitled What Nobody Will Tell You about Location Data. And what did the panel tell us?

Baseline location data is a commodity now.

Indeed, that fact was affirmed in the previous presentations and those to come. The state of the art in location analytics and proximity marketing has become the acquisition, interpretation and application of baseline location data from mobile phones.

Wait, what’s baseline location data and how is it obtained from mobile phones?

Curiously enough, that subject was never directly addressed. But in short, the primary data source consists of a latitude/longitude paired with a device identifier, gathered from mobile devices under their terms of service. These data points are enriched by companies who probabilistically associate the identifier with a household, demographic (or more!), and the geocoordinates with addresses and/or an individual’s journey. This commodity is then applied to business decisions or to pushing the right ad to the right consumer at the right time and place.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Thomas Walle of Unacast made the precision (pun intended) that data quality is not yet a commodity. This was affirmed by the chief data scientist of Outfront, a leading out-of-home (OOH) media owner with countless digital billboards, questioning the reliability of “polygon visits” as source data based on his experience with multiple vendors.

Only two hours into the conference, as the panel progressed, I was already distraught, painfully reminded of the above slide which we had presented at a similar conference two years previous. Entrenched was the “old way” of bombarding the consumer to drive a response, the innovation being smarter bombs homing in on fainter signals. The term “surveillance” entered the discourse and was not outright dismissed. Were we collectively comfortable with that?

But, it all turned around when the panel was followed by a presentation entitled The Future of Digital Identity: Countdown to 2020 in which Neil Sweeney of Freckle IoT promptly declared that

a data revolution is coming.

Calling into question the status quo, he argued that there is currently an inverted value proposition for the consumer, progressive government regulation (GDPR in Europe and soon CCPA in the US) is becoming law, and scandals such as Cambridge Analytica have unveiled the uncomfortable truth behind advertising business models. In short, don’t expect our suggestion to Facebook following last year’s Place Conference to become a priority anytime soon!

What Neil proposed was a complete reversal of the flow of information and the ownership of personal data. And with the Killi app, he invited the audience to take the first step right then and there, opting in to select specific pieces of personal information that they would like to share with brands in exchange for money.

It was as if our complementary slide from that previous conference had suddenly appeared! Here was the consumer “advertising” their intent to brands and businesses through their presence and the information they chose to share, expecting an appropriately personalised response in return.

Since reelyActive’s founding in 2012, we’ve championed this paradigm for the flow of information. Coincidentally, our most watched video, in which we present this paradigm by reversing the flow of information of a beacon, will tomorrow celebrate its fifth anniversary! It’s not difficult to imagine this implemented in the Killi app to facilitate real-time hyperlocal exchanges of information like we demonstrated with our own reelyApp.

Whether a micro-DMP like Killi or rather a Bank of Personal Data will eventually prove to be successful is of course up for debate, as few attendees seemed threatened by the imminence of a data revolution. Nonetheless — and reassuringly — most attendees seemed to agree that such a paradigm, which fosters transparency and inclusivity and moves the industry Beyond People-as-a-Product, is much closer to being the right model, even if most would argue it is not yet a realistic model. In any case, the technology is ready. The trillion-dollar question is whether the vendors will ready themselves to flip if and when that critical time comes?

Beyond People-as-a-Product?

Often these days I find myself wondering if, when Sergey and Larry were pitching Google in ’98-’99, their investor deck included a prescient slide about AdWords? While PageRank is well known as their disruptive technical innovation, AdWords, which alone likely accounts for two-thirds of Google’s revenues, is the type of disruptive business innovation that is the stuff of investor dreams — provided one accepts to take a leap of faith.

While it may have been difficult to imagine two decades ago, today we accept that as users of the Internet, we ourselves are often the product being monetised.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads” said Jeff Hammerbacher, Facebook’s first research scientist. It should come as no surprise that now with over two billion monthly-active “products” in stock, Facebook has established itself as the marketplace for hyper-targeted advertising. Indeed, the titans of social media and e-commerce each painstakingly maintain their own digital version of us, their users. These lucrative digital twins are the product of our online interactions, all made possible by the Internet.

But as we move beyond the Internet to the Internet of Things, things are changing. Literally. So what prescient slide would the likes of Sergey and Larry include in their ’18-’19 fundraising deck? In other words,

what becomes the novel product of the Internet of Things?

Where the Internet facilitated the understanding of people’s behaviour online, the Internet of Things adds the all-important understanding of people’s behaviour in the real-world. Does this simply mean that the “real you” will supersede your digital twin as a product? If so, who will own the “real you”? This raises plenty more questions.

Will the evolution of the People-as-a-Product paradigm remain the privy of the Big 5? Will progressive legislation such as GDPR influence the emerging product and, critically, its ownership? Will there be a revolutionary change? Imagine a modern spin on the familiar rallying cry:

Products of the world unite and seize the means of monetisation!

For a tech startup today, the trillion dollar question is what to include on that one prescient slide?   For the next generation of tech mercenaries entering the workforce, the question is what’s the equivalent of clicking on ads in the real world?   And for humanity, the question is how do we collectively envisage our own future?

Let’s not forget to focus on that last one too, at least for the sake of future generations (of products?)!

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.