9.24.2019

Data Property, Not Data Privacy: How Blockchain Can Change the World




Privacy as a Red Herring
So I recently watched the Netflix documentary, “The Great Hack,” which purports to reveal the nefarious things Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have done with our data. It seems these companies used our information to sell us things — in particular, to sell us a world view that supported a certain candidate in an election. Egad!

What the film, in its achingly obvious and predetermined sanctimony, fails to talk about is that these companies — Facebook and Cambridge Analytica along with Google, 23andMe, etc — sell our data without sharing any of the wealth with us. Another way to say this is that these companies steal our property, generating such absurdly vast wealth — for themselves.

Now, the film’s presumed whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser, repeatedly says this to the camera. But the film ignores this thread, focusing on how one or two companies seem to have been unethical in how they used our data. No mention of massive theft. No mention of financial retribution. No mention of Ms. Kaiser’s campaign, #OwnYourData. Instead, the film turns the systematic, institutional pillaging of our data into a few instances of bad behavior.

Which of course is precisely what Facebook wants. As long as the conversation is about data privacy, not data property, all it has to do is amend some terms of service, perhaps pay some fines, while its immense coffers remain untouched. The audience feels outraged. But the real question — whose property is this data? — remains unasked.

What is the Information Resource Economy?
As Edward Hickman, the CEO of Anatha, argues we are living in an information age economy — a resource economy of information. That is, information has become the most valuable asset in the planet — more than oil — propelling what are now the richest companies in the world.

We all know this. We are not an economy of manufacturing; we are an economy of data. The biggest companies in the world, such as Google and Facebook, don’t make much. In fact, the things they make — software — they mostly give away for free. They make their money by selling information. But here’s the odd thing: it’s not their information they’re selling. It’s ours. And yet when we talk about data today, the discussion is never about property — and its theft by these companies — but always about privacy.

In the age of smart devices, consider for a moment all the data you (potentially) generate that is used and sold for enormous profits. Take your driving: where you drive, how fast your drive, what car you drive, how often you buy a new car, how often you repair your car. Now clothes: what clothes you buy, how much research you do before you buy, when you buy them, where you buy them, why you buy them. Your music, your food habits, your home buying, your DNA, your voting, what you read and watch: all this is your data that companies want, that they gather and sell.

And yet we don’t share in any of the tremendous wealth that our data generates. And, what’s stranger, we even pay to give our data away. Just think about companies like 23andMe. People pay to give their DNA to a company which turns and sells it to pharmaceutical companies.

Now, I understand that 23andMe provides a service that costs the company money. The same is true of Google and Facebook: they spend money creating software that we use and should therefore be compensated. Of course. But should they own 100% of the profits our data generates — data that we literally create?

What I’m saying is that we are experiencing a dramatic shift in the global economy. Whereas resources such as oil and metals dominated the economy for decades, information is now the most valuable asset. And where does this data reside? In each of us, individually. Every person alive is a kind of oil well, an enormous and continuous source of this sought-after resource. Each person is now their own source of wealth generation. The question is: Who gets to enjoy this wealth?

I understand that legally defining the limits of data property can be tricky. After all, if I’m using Facebook’s software stored on their servers, why isn’t it their data? I understand that, perhaps, this needs to be worked out by the courts.

But there’s a better solution: it can be worked out by the market via new economic tools in which individuals not only control their data, they share in the value it generates. Consider for a moment that the the country of Iceland sold the DNA of its population to Roche for $200M which, I believe, it shared back with its citizens.

What if there were a new social media app in which all users were stakeholders? Where you shared in the wealth generated by your activity, by the content you created? Wouldn’t we all use that one? We don’t need the courts. We need new applications — and new economic tools to drive them.

Enter Information Age Economic Tools: Blockchain & Decentralization
Try to picture Facebook, Google, Uber, Twitter, Yelp suddenly shifting their economic model and sharing the wealth they generate selling your data. Well, it’d be complicated — technologically and practically speaking. All those unique contracts between the company and its two billion users. Oy!

Now try to picture the complexities of actually sharing that wealth with you. All those different currencies, each with its own set of regulations that change nation to nation. The fact is: it’s hard for me to even get paid by my clients. They issue a check from a bank that holds their money; they send that to me; I then go to another bank that holds my money. If my client chooses to wire me money rather than send a paper check — yes, most payments are still done via paper checks — then there are other intermediaries overseeing and managing that flow of funds. We take this process so for granted that we never even consider it odd that all these intermediaries — multiple banks and payment services, each with their own legal regulations — have to manage an exchange between two parties, my client and me.

Why can’t my client just pay me directly? Because that’s not how our centralized economy of government run fiat currency functions. Everything has to be run through a central point.

Blockchain technology, along with other means of decentralization both known and yet-known, proffer a different model. Currencies are no longer managed by a central party such as a government or corporation. Rather, each runs independently, according to rules set forth from the get go (if you don’t like the rules, use a different currency; yes, cryptocurrencies make currency itself multiple and competitive). So payments are peer-to-peer. No need for the bevy of intermediaries that carry money from one person to another — no need for banks, no need for financial services such as VISA, no third parties siphoning off money just so my client can pay me.

At the heart of these currencies is what people call a smart contract. A smart contract is an automated, computer-run set of transactions between parties that needs no third-party to oversee or execute it. It executes itself. As Blockgeeks define it: “Smart contracts help you exchange money, property, shares, or anything of value in a transparent, conflict-free way while avoiding the services of a middleman. The best way to describe smart contracts is to compare the technology to a vending machine. Ordinarily, you would go to a lawyer or a notary, pay them, and wait while you get the document. With smart contracts, you simply drop a bitcoin into the vending machine (i.e. ledger), and your escrow, driver’s license, or whatever drops into your account."

So now picture a social media company, such a new version of Facebook, that is run on a decentralized platform. When you sign up, you agree to certain terms — what data you’ll share and sell (if any) and what data you won’t. Based on these terms, as the company manages and sells your data, real spendable value is returned to you. It’s all worked out by the smart contract as payment is delivered directly from the company — that is to say, from the network or DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) — to you.

And while you’re probably thinking that the company would inevitably try to screw you over, two aspects of such decentralized technologies are immutability and transparency. As all transactions — the exchange of data and currency — happens on the blockchain, they are all recorded for anyone to see (transparent). There is no way to tamper with it, no way to embezzle (immutable). This is why these networks and contracts are called trustless — not because you don’t trust anyone but because you don’t need to trust anyone. The code executes the terms of the deal without anyone getting involved.

Suddenly, all technological and bureaucratic obstacles are removed. As the information resource economy is as distributed and decentralized as human beings are, the blockchain offers distributed, decentralized economic tools, readily distributing wealth as information is created and shared.

Now picture your own digital identity that moves between apps, smart devices, and currencies. At each step, you control what data you share and what you don’t while you share in whatever value your data generates — automatically.

And voilĂ : now every person on the planet who so chooses is suddenly participating in the vast wealth creation that is the information economy. And, together, we all flourish.
Some years in the future, we’ll look back at this time as the age of the Information Robber Barons. Do you remember Facebook, we’ll ask each other, that company that so relentlessly stole our data to get rich? That was nuts! I wonder what happened to them.

9.23.2019

Uncertainty & Stories All the Way Down: On HBO's "The Leftovers"

So, yes, this essay has spoilers. But what's a spoiler, exactly? And do they matter? "The Leftovers" is an odd beast that is at once highly expressive, leading with affect, sentiment, and feelings. In fact, its affective intensity is downright relentless even, or especially, as it's inflected by strong, incongruous music choices.

 
 "The Leftovers" deploys strong music choices that inflect the action and feeling in endlessly surprising ways. The music rewrites the story we're seeing, another "fact" within the storytelling.

At the same time, the show is fundamentally driven by narrative twists and turns. In fact, the show is of, and about, competing narratives on the cosmic, societal, and personal level —  narratives that will never have been veneer or ornament but, on the contrary, are ontological in that they are the shaping of life itself.

"The Leftovers" argues that stories are relational, putting people, data, events, and feelings in relationships to each other. This makes them epistemological as all knowledge claims are first, foremost, and finally stories that link things together in a way that makes sense. And ontological in a sense as stories don't create the world but, in their distribution of experience, data, and events, they are always already shaping life itself. Stories don't come after the fact or before the fact: stories always already inflect, deploy, and distribute facts.

Bear with me, please.

One of the great things about "The Leftovers" is that there is no master narrative to which we are privy. There is nothing we know that the characters don't. We never know the limits of actions, of what's actually possible. Like the characters, we never know what's going to happen, what's real and what's not, what's dream, hallucination, what's madness. We are contemporaneous with the characters' discovery of the limits of the world after it's now possible for people to literally vanish from the face of the earth in the blink of an eye.

So, in this sense, this essay does have spoilers as you'll know how some things turn out. But, on the other hand, the ambiguity of competing narrative never resolves. There is no end point per se. In "The Leftovers," as with most great stories, it's the living through that matters — which is to say, it's all in the storytelling.

But I want to first talk about "The Walking Dead," another show that opens with an event that destabilizes societal and institutional power — a virus that turns the majority of the world's population into flesh eating zombies. (Both shows feature handsome, grizzly white male cops as their lead but that's where the commonality ends: "TWD's" Rick and "The Leftovers'" Kevin enjoy radically different postures towards others, towards power, towards the story, towards us — but that's for another essay. I'll say this: Kevin will never have been the master of anything other than abiding the demented flux around him — and taking a beating in the process.) In "TWD," the structures that determine the consequences of our actions — institutional ethics — no longer exist for two interrelated reasons. One, there is simply no government left, no police, no church. They're all dead, or undead, but in any case certainly not alive. And, two, the ethics of those institutions no longer apply. How do you determine murder for, and of, the undead? Old ethics are predicated on a near-globally shared understanding of the distinction between life and death. Once that distinction goes, so goes the foundation of ethics.

"The Walking Dead," then, gives us a series of ethical structures competing to effectively govern and control people — from forms of democracy and anarchy to ideological and practical fascism. This is what drives the show episode to episode, season to season: in the face of the collapse of existing institutionalized ethics (what Deleuze and Guattari would call their deterritorialization), we witness the emergence of competing ethical modes — or what we might call territorializations as different camps in different regions with differing ethical structures vie for resources and control.

Sure, this has some existential ramifications but only in as much as one is defined ethically. The show doesn't explore other aspects of one's constitution such as, say desire. "The Walking Dead" explores what it is to be a "good person" in the zombie apocalypse, never what it means to be in general. There is no cosmic exploration; the show's horizon is limited to the constitution of the self within the social (if you're a Kierkegaard fan, this is what he calls "the ethical stage" — not aesthetic or religious immediacy but the mediation of self by the social; this became the basis for what would become existentialism). 

Like "TWD," "The Leftovers" is propelled by a destabilizing, deterritorializing event: the sudden departure of 2% of the world's population, more or less evenly distributed (although the terms of this distribution become one element within the drama as one town had no departures: is it for a reason? If so, why?). Needless to say, this undoes the power of certain institutions. The police state's hold on things is redistributed: in what becomes a mostly background refrain, a kind of sick joke, the police state now more openly and aggressively kills emergent competing structures while at the same time tolerating a higher level of day to day chaos and murder. It seems that when citizens can simply vanish into the ether without a trace, it's not so easy to govern.

Science, too, is crippled, at least as master of knowing this unknowable event. In the end, science plays an essential role — not in understanding it but in reckoning it. A group of outlaw scientists have presumably created a way for people to go where the departed went. This is fantastic: science here offers no explanation, no knowledge per se, only more facts that become elements with "The Book of Nora" (the title to the series finale). Which is to say, science here offers data, not knowledge: the story creates the knowing. 

Generally speaking, "The Leftovers" doesn't care as much about the ethical structures that are deterritorialized. It focuses instead on the epistemological and existential scaffolds that buttress identity and social relations. If people can suddenly vanish without a trace, thereby breaking all existing laws of nature, what else is possible? What else don't we know — or even know how to know? And then what are the limits of a self, of a life, if it's no longer death and the rules of life are so cruelly unknowable and seemingly capricious? Say what you will about the mystery of death, we have no shortage of beliefs about what causes, and protects us from, it. There is no such explanatory scaffold for the Sudden Departure.

This epistemological quandary calls all departures into question. Suddenly, divorces and break ups, parents abandoning their children and children moving away from their parents, comas, the inability to have kids, not to mention regular old death are all cast out of their petrified stories and back into uncertainty — and the grief that such unknowability of loss creates. The Sudden Departure, it turns out, is one event within a vast network of loss that pervades life all the time. Only now, all that loss is no longer asleep within tired narratives: they're all alive and flailing as everyone in this show, along with this show itself, is careening.

In "The Leftovers," people come in and out of our lives all the time. Yes, they die. But they also divorce, move away, drift apart. Departures are not new to this world. But all these other kinds of departure are, like death, situated. A lover leaving us may tear us apart but any mystery there has long been eradicated, explained this way and that until we no longer find it bizarre that people we were once so entwined with are no longer part of our lives. We even have remedies — psychiatry and its meds and a flourishing industry of self-help.

This epistemological event, this rupture in the edifices of knowledge, this glaring unknowability is more than a lack: it is a creative event, a productive vacuum that births relentless tales of meaning. Judeo-Christianity inevitably at once splinters and surges. But what's so interesting is that the same event is situated in such radically different ways in these competing tales. For some, the departure is a rapture; for others, a damnation. And so there are competing narratives as to the status of the eponymous leftovers: are they the ones saved or the ones not saved?

This is one of the great profundities of "The Leftovers": things are never just themselves. All things, all bodies and events, are always already situated within stories of cause and effect, stories of meaning. The same facts can be, and are, always read in fundamentally different ways. Indeed, on its own, a fact has no meaning. The departure, like all things, is always already taken up by competing narratives.

What makes the Sudden Departure so different is that it's new to us. These emerging stories have not had time to lose their valence to become habits of knowing, to be metaphors that we've forgotten are metaphors (pace Nietzsche). All explanations — of knowledge or meaning — are wacky, poignant stories. Whether it's religious creationism of Hinduism or Judaism; the scientific stories of big bang, black holes, and replicating crystals; or the psychology of motivation and affect: they're all very strange stories we've forgotten are actually stories. In "The Leftovers," all stories suddenly seem odd as we see them for what they are — stories, not facts. 

This, in turn, inaugurates a widespread epistemological dilemma — or perhaps "opening" is a better word than dilemma. The dominant story of matter and life and death no longer applies and so now everything is up for grabs about what counts as knowledge, what counts as a way of knowing. In the last season, a refrain we hear come out of different character's mouths is: "I don't understand what's happening." This is the very conditions of the shows drama: uncertainty.

Suddenly, "The Leftovers" moves into a new semiotic regime in which signs no longer signify what they used to as they're taken up by different people for different reasons. Dreams, coincidences, hallucinations take on new roles. Are Garvey's visions actually hallucinations, signs of a psychotic break, as Laurie Garvey argues? Or revelations, as Matt Jamison believe? Or an inherited madness from his father who also hears voices? And do all such visions share the same viability? Are Kevin Garvey Sr's voices equally valid because we believe his son's visions are real? The show never lands any one place; the decisions are ours as to who's insane, who's a prophet, and who might be something else entirely. Holy Wayne and his hugs; Kevin's deaths and resurrections; Dean's conspiratorial dogs; Evangeline's "seizures"; Kevin Sr's voices; Patti's ghost; Virgil's ability to see the dead; the little girl pushed down the well; the town of Jarden; the "lens' theory: the valence of each is sure and unsure, situated in different narratives in different ways.

Such is the way of knowing: we believe on the strength of the uncertain.  How do you go home from the land of the dead? You sing Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound" in a hotel lobby bar karaoke.



In the second season, the show pays clear homage to David Lynch. Odd things happen as Lynch's signature mechanical drone plays, a sense of impending menace. Meanwhile, in good Lynchian style, signs proliferate — a town without departures; cigarette smoking; silence; goats; leaking faucets; barking dogs; earthquakes; fake prophets; crosses and oar beatings; back doors; and on and on. They all seem somehow significant, brimming with meaning. Only we don't know what they mean. And nor does the show. Rather than signification, "The Leftovers" give us the valence of signs without clear signification. Like Lynch, the show plays in the power of signs and where they might point.


But, unlike Lynch, "The Leftovers" never suggests some secret, impossibly strange cabal behind the red curtain. No, the show takes more from Pynchon: everything is a sign that at once connects and doesn't connect with other signs. Lynch gives us a world where meaning may be unknowable but something knows — always off screen. Pynchon, on the other hand, gives us an endless proliferation of signs that circulate in different economies of meaning, coalescing and dissolving as they go.

In "The Leftovers," signs are taken up by stories and made to work in vastly different ways. And no story ever prevails. Nor does the show itself give us any firm ground to stand on, no privileged perspective of knowing. The last season becomes explicitly about all these competing stories, who has the better story. The bookend episodes of Season 3 are entitled "The Book of Kevin" and "The Book of Nora." In between, there's "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World." It's all stories — science, religion, self. We're constantly writing and rewriting our stories, as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, as a species.



And that is what the show is: this following of different ways of taking up signs, different stories that wind through and around each other at ever different angles without certainty. The ground will never firm up. The show is all these stories at once, all competing and colliding and intertwining, offering neither respite nor resolve.

Here, stories are not fiction: they're creative, forging the sense of the world. Stories are epistemological: ways of knowing the world. And stories are ontological in that they are the sense we make of this life, the creative force always at work distributing facts, emotions, bodies, and events into relations with each other. We lost 2% of the world's people; those 2% lost 98%. The Sudden Departure happened October 14 here, on October 15 in Australia. Kevin navigates the dead and hallucinates like a madman; he's just a guy and he's a prophet. Same events, different perspectives, different worlds, different ways of relating to each other, all happening at once.

It's all always already stories. There's no real underneath or above to curb the tides: it's uncertainty and stories all the way down. And it's downright beautiful.

9.07.2019

Love is a Practice (a spoken essay)



Inspired by this great Erich Fromm quote, “Love isn't something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice," I riff on taking acid, seeing anew, being in a relationship, meditation, the way capitalism coerces it all — and how to do it all differently. Or some such thing.

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