Relationships are everything.
Relationships are the reason we look after each other, the reason we reproduce, the reason we form groups and ultimately the reason we evolve. Relationships are simply one of the fundamental parts of being human.
These relationships with others – our family, our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues our customers – are all based on different levels of trust. When we talk about ‘deep’ or ‘strong’ relationships, we just mean to say that we trust each other a lot, sometimes unconditionally. It’s obvious then – but worth making the point – that when we don’t trust each other we form weaker or perhaps shallower relationships. Trust and relationships are not only related, but symbiotic. They need and feed off each other.
Personal data is naturally one of those things we share with those we trust. Information about who we are, what we are doing, where we are, our physical and emotional selves and so on. But sometimes when we share personal data, trusting that what’s shared will be handled with care, there are unintended or unwanted outcomes. In this post I wanted to look at those unwanted outcomes from sharing personal data, and some of the steps we take to manage it.
Who said you could do that?
When we share our personal data, it’s sometimes used in ways we don’t agree with, in ways we didn’t sign-up to. I think there are three of these outcomes…
- Being contacted without permission (or good reason)
- Being impersonated without permission
- Being exposed without permission (or good reason)
When we have a relationship, often implicitly or perhaps culturally we agree the rules of engagement – how often, when and where we are happy to contact each other. And because we have a relationship, we are able to set those boundaries (and reset them when they are crossed). But sometimes we are contacted by people without our permission or good reason, and by people or companies with whom we have no relationship. So the first of the unwanted outcomes is about spam, stalking and unsolicited advertising. In order to contact us, people either need to obtain our contact details (phone numbers, email address, twitter handles etc.) or they need to track us so they can target their communication by knowing where we are, what we’re doing, or what device we’re carrying (here’s a great link to a recent New York Times article entitled That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker).
The second is about identity theft. That is, someone we don’t know using our personal data in order to access our money, our government benefits or citizen rights (for example using our passport information to get into the country). Sometimes the data is obtained through phishing, and sometimes it’s hacked. Experian recently released a report showing that more than 12 million pieces of personal information were illegally traded online by identity fraudsters in the first four months of 2012 – outstripping the entire of 2010 (interestingly, about 90% of it was password/ login combinations). Regardless of how our personal data is obtained, it’s often being used to impersonate us without our permission.
The third is more interesting – it’s about permitting, or seeking to have control over information about us which is shared with others. Naturally, we’re pretty good at doing this for our physical selves – we use clothes and curtains to keep private what we don’t want other people to see. But when it comes to personal information it’s different. What are the ‘clothes and curtains’ for our personal information? Is it even possible?
The thing is, information has some interesting characteristics. George Bernard Shaw once said (something like): “if you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” His point was that some things behave as if they’re abundant. It doesn’t matter how many times you copy them and share them, the original remains the same, as do the copies. These things are known as ‘non-rival’ goods. This idea of abundance is a powerful one, because it helps explain how we treat abundant things.
For a long time, sharing things was limited to people who were in the same place at the same time, or limited to those who could write things down, copy them and take the bit of paper or parchment away. In other words, there was a cost to sharing, a friction to sharing. And so sharing was contained, for better or for worse. But then the printing press came along, then later the telephone and more recently the Internet, and we’ve been able to copy information at an increasingly low cost. In fact today, the costs to copy are pretty much zero – as Kevin Kelly brilliantly puts it, “The internet is a copy machine”.
Anyway, sharing our digital information has now become so easy and so cheap that all day, every day we share things without thinking. And like Bernard Shaw’s ideas, we’re now sharing our personal data abundantly – perfect copies of this data can be made and shared widely at pretty much zero cost. And this abundance of sharing begins to scratch away at the idea that we’re losing the sense of relationship with whom we share our personal data. Where, how, why and when it is shared is often unclear to us. And with the loss of these relationships, we’ve lost the trust in how that data is handled; people started contacting us without permission, impersonating us without permission and sharing information about us without permission.
Protecting our privacy
Let’s take an example to bring this to life a bit. Earlier this year, much was written about how Target, a goods retailer in the US, figured out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did.
Aside from the fact that there are some social and ethical issues to be explored here, the point is that whilst Target were correct in their analysis, they contacted the girl about the pregnancy without her permission, and they exposed her personal data without her permission. As we go about our daily lives we leave a digital exhaust – a digital footprint – and our personal data is often left behind like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Track enough of it (like what lotions and vitamin supplements you buy) and compare this with other known group behaviours (like those who you know are pregnant and who are buying baby clothes, nappies and pregnancy books) and of course it’s possible to make some accurate assumptions about an individual. I’ve previously called this your ‘inferred data’. So it’s understandable that we’re becoming more wary about what is being shared – both with and without our permission – and we’re seeking to protect our privacy to avoid these unwanted outcomes.
To look more closely at how we protect ourselves, I’ve broken down the lifecycle of personal data:
- Data is produced (or observed if it’s self-evident);
- Data is captured and stored;
- Data is analysed or processed; and then
- Data is used
Here’s an example of this in action…
- I wear clothes that expose my Harley-Davidson tattoo
- My tattoo is seen by the man serving me at the bar
- The barman makes an assumption – that I’m into biking and believe in what Harley-Davidson stands for
- The barman strikes up a conversation about bikes, and because he too is into bikes, we share information about each other. The result is that we start to trust each other. We form a relationship. He might even give me a beer on the house.
Now let’s take a more obvious digital example…
- I browse the web using an internet browser
- Using cookies, my browsing activity is tracked by the web sites I visit
- My behaviours are analysed – both in real time and afterwards
- My subsequent web browsing is targeted with ads to better ‘personalise’ the service. Importantly, the targeted ads are paid for by companies trying to build a relationship with me. But it’s not really a relationship. And there’s no trust. It’s really just a transaction at best, and I’m seen as a sales lead to be sold on
This use of my personal data means I get a better experience (like remembering my ‘shopping basket’) and sometimes I get a good deal on my purchases. But mostly it just makes my browsing experience a bit noisy because the ‘targeted’ ads are assumption-based and are often more miss than hit. These two examples highlight how it’s the context of sharing that determines the permissions to share – some are explicit, while others are implicit – and therefore the outcomes i.e. stronger relationships and lower prices or instead a loss of trust and shopping frustration. As we live more and more of our lives online these issues have become increasingly apparent, and there are now many groups and bodies who are looking at the social, ethical, economic and political issues surrounding personal data.
I see that these projects fall into two camps… The first are looking at who knows what about us – in other words, steps 1 and 2 above. For example there is lots of work going into making the public aware of exactly how much data is being captured about them, by whom and for what purpose. The second group are looking at how this data is handled once it’s captured; that’s steps 3 and 4.
Privacy in action
Now rather than delve into the ins and outs, rights and wrongs of digital privacy (not least because there are many more qualified people than I who have written credibly about it, and at length), I wanted to point to some of the main activities aiming to help us manage our personal data and avoid those unwanted outcomes I suggested at the start of this post.
Below is a list of some of the main things going on around personal data; I’ve broken them down into the stages of the personal data lifecycle, steps 1-4. (Note that some of these are links to specific projects, and others are just linked to sites that provide more information)…
Who’s in control?
A big part of sharing our personal data is the bargain we make with online services when we agree to give up a bunch of data in return for some utility – a better deal, access to my friends’ information, accurate search results and more. Cory Doctorow highlights one of the great underlying issues here when he points out that “…even if you read the fine print, human beings are awful at pricing out the net present value of a decision whose consequences are far in the future.”
So I would suggest that we’re sharing our data abundantly, and not really ‘pricing in’ the full cost of doing so. The thing is, culturally we’re so much more comfortable with scarcity. When things are scarce we value them more highly, and when things are abundant we treat them cheaply (in Clay Shirky’s words, abundance means ‘cheap enough to waste’ and therefore ultimately ‘cheap enough to experiment’). And so it is with our data – we value it and so want it to remain scarce. Our instinct is to hold on to it, restrict it, secure it and sometimes misdirect others around it (like when we give out a fake email address to avoid getting spammed). And yet we give so much of it away, not really fully aware of the T&Cs under which we agree to share it. This pretence of scarcity means we end up saying things like ‘who owns the data?’ or ‘who controls the data?’, something pretty much impossible once it’s been shared in this digital age.
In my view, we should instead reflect on the idea that our personal data is now in many ways a non-rival good, it’s abundant, and perhaps behave differently around it. That would mean we would instead say things like “who has access to the data” and “what are people doing with my data”. It would mean new terms and conditions for sharing, perhaps those under which we can feel more confident about how our data is being used, and under which we can benefit from the products and services exchanged. Sharing would be more transparent, and we’d have the right to take action if our data is incorrect, or there’s an abuse of the data. Once we get some degree of visibility of who has our data, in what format, why and how they are using it, I think something interesting will happen: trust will emerge. And with that trust, new relationships. Indeed, we may begin to actually share more – an idea already proposed by those looking at Volunteered Personal Information. And as we share more – under clear and transparent terms – everyone will win: new products and services will become available (think of patientslikeme.com but for everything), our existing services will get even better because they will matter to us (and not be based on guess work), and guess what, we’ll feel better about it all because there won’t be a sense of any hidden agenda with our personal data, which after all, is personal.
A couple of suggestions
So I’d say that we need two main changes to how we behave around our personal data
- We need to recognise that we can’t control data in every circumstance: instead lets accept that and turn to ways to improve transparency: information sharing agreements, regulation for organisations to be clear about what data they gather and how they use it, and perhaps new ways to make us more aware of what we’re sharing in the first place so we can make informed decisions
- We need to better understand personal data in context: what it is we really need to share, when and with whom (here’s a good example: to prove we are old enough to buy alcohol, we often use a document that proves we can drive. We can and should get better at using personal data in context – we only need to share what we need to share)
I’m hopeful that much of this is on the way. But there’s a lot more to do.
Over the last few months I’ve read some great books that have helped frame my thinking about how and why people produce, connect, share and learn. And so I want to start posting some of the main points and what I’ve learned from them. Here is the first of these posts: it’s on the excellent Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky.
The book begins by pointing out that if you look back in history, one of the bargains of the industrial revolution was to give workers the right to eight hours for work, eight for sleep and eight for themselves. This provided much more ‘spare time’ than had previously been known by workers. And over the last few years there has since been a major shift in the type of work being done around the world; increasingly many people are paid to think or talk, rather than to make things or move them around. This change in work has further enabled us to have more time available for our own purposes. Together, these shifts mean that we now have more free time than we’ve ever had; we are moving on from a post-war work environment. And insightful as ever, Shirky suggests that it’s been broadcast media that has soaked up much of this new-found free time – the key culprit being the TV sitcom. The point he makes is that today we don’t see enough of the value of this free time; so many of us fill it rather than use it.
Now, as access to the internet has spread we have become connected to each other in ways never imagined – we can now produce, learn, connect, share, and shop (and pretty much everything else you can think of) online. This connectedness has freed us from simply consuming content to being able to participate and contribute to it inlarger groups. Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus is about how and why we can (and perhaps should) put to better use our collective, accumulated free time by connecting and participating in new ways for the public good.
We are becoming one and another’s infrastructure
As a group becomes larger, the chances of human events will change. Things which were previously unlikely can become likely. For example, in the middle of a big city it’s quite possible that at any one time, someone will want to buy a slice of pizza. As a result, pizza companies can afford to make pizzas in advance and sell them by the slice, confident that there will be demand for them. On the other hand, in a rural village the demand for pizza slices is very low. The result there is that pizza companies only make whole pizzas when they are ordered.
This tiny but important example highlights the vast range and volume of individual needs which can only emerge as a crowd grows. And in larger crowds it’s more likely that someone somewhere in the group will be able to meet those needs. The internet of course enables us to form much larger, diverse crowds like never before. So we can increasingly rely on a wider group of people – both online and offline – to meet our various needs. To bring this to life, just think that only 20 years ago, footage and personal accounts of war were only really captured, edited and published by dedicated people in the field – aid workers, the government and the media. Today, we can see and hear often real-time updates from those who are on the ground, living it minute by minute. With their mobile phones and computers they can share with millions what’s going on around them as it happens. We are becoming each other’s infrastructure.
The rise of the non-professional
There’s an important point to be made about this new infrastructure: the quality of outputs only needs to be ‘good enough’ – we don’t always need the polish and presentation that professionals provide. The age-old idea that we should ‘leave the brain surgery to the brain surgeons’ is beginning to unravel a little. The book points out two problems with this concept. Firstly, we can’t assume a professional is better in every context. Quite rightly Shirky says that he can’t sing happy birthday to his children better than Placido Domingo, but there are times “when doing things badly, with and for one another beats having them done well by a professional”. Indeed, I’m as likely – perhaps more likely – to be influenced by a friend’s restaurant review than one from Time Out; this is partly because it’s personalised and we have a relationship (something the social networks are beginning to understand) but also because often the content is more important than the form. My view is that there’s an underlying requirement for trust in these environments; trust of sources, trust of data. More on this shortly (you can find some of my other thoughts on trust in an earlier post).
Secondly, he says that we need to separate the need for experience of something from the need for knowledge of it. I’d want only a qualified brain surgeon to operate on me, but there will be countless others who can tell me how the brain works and about its constituent parts – and depending on what I needed, they could be of help to me in different ways; the point is that it all depends on the context. (For those interested, there’s a lot more on the ‘knowledge of experience’, often called ‘tacit knowledge’ in the Power of Pull; and a bonus link – JP Rangaswami’s recent thoughts on Doing by learning)
Case in point: the brilliant organisation patientslikeme highlights how crowd-sourced information can be better (faster, more accurate, more instructive, and more relevant) than that supplied by a ‘professional’ organisation. My own view here is that this rise of the amateur, or non-professional, reflects a related shift in the technologies we use to share things (moving from broadcast to participatory) and how we behave in the workplace (changing from worker to contributor).
We need to understand why – not just what and how we do things
I think that one of Shirky’s greatest insights is that “behaviour is a motivation that’s been filtered through opportunity”. The book shows that in order to understand the behaviours around our Cognitive Surplus, like a detective understanding a crime, we must look at means, opportunity and motive.
In the context of the Cognitive Surplus, Shirky explains that the means are the systems, tools or platforms that allow us to connect, share and learn (like Skype, LinkedIn or YouTube). The opportunity is the combination of the time, place and people which enable us to take action. And he outlines the science which shows that there are two types of motive:
- Intrinsic motivations, which Shirky summarises as a need for 1) increased competence, 2) autonomy over what we do, 3) membership of a group who share our values and beliefs, 4) the sharing of things with that group; and
- Extrinsic motivations, like reward and recognition or punishment for certain behaviours.
When we were only given the opportunity to consume broadcast media, that’s exactly what we did. (As Jerry Michalski once put it, for a long time we have been treated as “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”.) Then along came the internet and we were given the opportunity to produce, contribute, study, collaborate, participate, have conversations and exchange value in ways – and at scales – that had not previously been possible. And we took up that opportunity with gusto. You see, it’s been the opportunity that’s changed, not our interest – or motivations – to connect, share and learn.
(As an aside, this logic helps us diagnose complex events in society like the UK’s 2011 riots. Many pointed the finger at new technologies like social networks and gang culture, but framing it differently would see that these apparently new behaviours are actually the combined result of the motive (initial reactions to the shooting of a man in North London, wider social issues including community relationships with the police), means (crowd used Blackberry Messenger and Twitter to coordinate) and opportunity (the forming of crowds on the streets after a peaceful protest in Tottenham, and a delayed response from the police.)
Relationships make all the difference
One of the book’s most important points for me is Shirky’s explanation of the importance of relationships. He points to a whole bunch of science (including the Ultimatum Game) which shows that our relationships have a direct impact on our transactions. When exchanging value with another party with whom you have a relationship, more often than not the price or payment will change; this is of course intuitive – we often call this ‘mates’ rates’.
And the opposite is also true – our relationships with one another often change when a transaction (for example price) is introduced. It’s easy to bring this to life: imagine you work as a volunteer (or at least do something for free) and are intrinsically motivated to do that work – you enjoy the work itself, value being part of a group and feel there’s a broader purpose to it. Then imagine you start to be paid for that work. All the evidence shows that you’ll begin to behave differently; the relationship has changed. And interestingly, the more you are paid, there’s a lot of science which shows that your performance could even get worse. This is a good example of how extrinsic motivations (like being paid, or being punished for certain behaviours) can often ‘crowd out’ our intrinsic motivations. (Shirky points to an excellent academic paper on the subject: A Fine is a Price)
But it all starts with the relationship (or lack of one). He goes on to show that the outcomes for both parties are actually fairer when the parties have a relationship. Put another way, when we don’t know or trust the other person (or company) we care less about them and tolerate less-fair outcomes.
It’s all about sharing
The Cognitive Surplus is at its heart all about sharing and so Shirky takes a closer look at what this means in practice. He believes that there are four types:
- Personal – it’s uncoordinated, for example home-made YouTube videos and lolcats – anyone can do it but the benefits are mainly personal;
- Communal – it’s collaborative, for example sharing findings within an academic research group or reviews within a book club – only the group can do it, and only the group benefits;
- Public – it’s open, for example open-source software – anyone can do it, and it benefits even those not involved; and
- Civic – it’s for society, for example the occupy movement and the Arab spring – anyone can do it and it’s the wider community and society that benefit.
He points out that much of today’s sharing is for personal and communal reasons; that is, the benefits are primarily for individuals and groups. Shirky believes there is a great opportunity in front of us: to build systems, platforms and tools which enable and encourage public and civic sharing for a wider benefit.
He points to three waves of innovation which underpin this opportunity: a low cost of experimentation; a huge base of potential users; and no need to ask permission. (I see these directly related to the principles of the internet outlined by Doc Searls and David Weinberger in World of Ends –specifically N.E.A.: No one owns it; Everyone can use it; Anyone can improve it).
In order for us to take advantage of these innovation waves we’ll need to design the technology to do so. Shirky states that when we assume people are principally selfish, too often we design systems that reward selfish behaviours – systems which “provide lots of individual freedom to act but not public value or management of collective resources for the public good”.
Instead, he says, we should provide access to cheap and flexible tools for sharing that can tap into the Cognitive Surplus in a meaningful way. A great example cited is Ushahidi.com, a non-profit tech company who build crowd-sourcing platforms for people to share information and to map and organise that information easily. Originally it was used in Kenya to track and map incidents of violence, where individuals were freely able to submit reports using their phones and the internet; the platform has since been reused around the world, notably in crisis-stricken regions.
As we increasingly become one another’s infrastructure, and as we build new systems to provide the means and opportunity to connect, share and learn, we can begin to see the promise of the Cognitive Surplus. But it’s why we’ll do this that’s important. If we can understand and enable our intrinsic motivations – the need for competence, autonomy, membership and sharing – then we’ll be able to use our free time as participants, instead of having it filled for us as passive consumers. And building on our relationships, we can together – at scale in crowds – begin to share for public and civic reasons to benefit everyone.
At the end of the book Shirky outlines some principles which we should consider when designing, building and launching new systems or ways of working – these best sum up my lessons from the book so here they are:
- Start small – projects that depend on growth for success generally won’t grow;
- Understand what will motivate users – we must design and build our systems and tools once we know WHY people will use it (e.g. intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations);
- Understand what opportunity you are providing – we must grasp what is being provided and how it will be used;
- Default to social – growth comes from sharing, and it’s the defaults that drive reinforcing behaviours (e.g. open vs. closed);
- Vary participation – groups bring diversity, so we must enable all levels and types of user engagement – people need a low threshold to get started;
- Enable self-governance – central governance doesn’t scale so help the community form and regulate its own rules and behaviours (but provide mediation where needed);
- Tweak as you grow – listen to the community, be responsive and open to feedback.
To wrap up, Cognitive Surplus has really made me think hard about how and why we share – and to what end. If you don’t have time to read the book, go check out Shirky’s TED talk on the subject. Whilst short, it gives you a good sense of what it all means, and the potential of it. I’ll post some more on these ideas at some point soon.