(This is part of a series of posts in which I provide ten proposals as to how to affirmatively disrupt ubercapitalism and the corporate sharing economy. Together these posts constitute the draft of a text provisionally titled Data Commonism, designed to follow on from my recently published short book, The Uberfication of the University. If the latter provides a dystopian sense of what is lying in store for many us over the course of the next few years, Data Commonism is more optimistic in that it shows what we can do about it.
The first text in this series, Data Commonism: Introduction is here.
We Don’t Have To Live Like This: How To Affirmatively Disrupt the Disrupters
A still further way we can endeavor to affirmatively disrupt the platform capitalists of the sharing economy is by working toward the kind of “universal micropayment system” Jaron Lanier envisages in Who Owns The Future: “If observation of you yields data that makes it easier for… a political campaign to target voters with its message, then you ought to be owed money for the use of that valuable data.” In this system we would be paid for the data we generate if it turns out to be valuable. Our relationship with the platforms of the for-profit sharing economy would thus take the form of a “two-way” financial transaction in which we all “benefit, concretely, with real money,” rather than just a few San Francisco-based entrepreneurs and investors.
Interestingly, we do now have the means to apply a licence to specify how our data is to be protected and controlled and whether it can be shared. Project-if.com, for example, allows individuals to license their data: that produced using the Oyster travel card in London, say. As was made clear at the 2015 Big Bang Data exhibition at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Project-if.com “let people decide whether their data is shared or not, who can access it, and what they can do with it... The prototype works on a blockchain, a transparent and secure data recording system.”
Such an approach has the potential to be disruptive of the for-profit sharing economy since it would allow us, if we so wish, to withhold our user data--data on which platform capitalist companies depend for their successful operation. One problem with Lanier’s idea, however, is that of scale. A universal micropayment system may result in some degree of financial redistribution. But while it provides a means of reuniting data with those users who produce it--in contrast to platform capitalist companies which work hard to keep the two apart--there is not really all that much we can do with our own small amounts of data. How much leverage would we have when it comes to negotiating a price for it, bearing in mind most of us will have to rely on these companies to determine for us the extent to which our data--including that we generate in our homes by using the Google Home voice assistant, or Amazon’s Echo, with its virtual PA Alexa--has actually contributed to a political campaign aimed at targeting voters, to stay with Lanier’s example?
Any money we succeed in obtaining in this fashion is likely to be relatively minor--along the lines of the royalty payment musicians receive from streaming services such as Spotify (between $0.006 and $0.0084 per play). Lanier’s universal micropayment idea therefore seems another approach that will do little to fundamentally alter the overall system of ubercapitalism.
(The same can be said of the musician Imogen Heap’s idea to change the music industry by using blockchain technology to ensure artists get paid. It is interesting how often blockchain technology is used to try to find a way for users to pay for everything in the form of micropayments. )
And what if the price we are offered is not acceptable? In reality, how much power are we likely to have to retain ownership and control of our data more broadly, compared to that of large, aggressive, for-profit corporations such as Google and Amazon: especially if these corporations hold the view that, in the words of Carl Bildt, chair of the Commission on Internet Governance thinktank, “Barriers against the free flow of data are, in effect, barriers against trade.” As Dymtri Kleiner reminds us, “their business model depends fundamentally on surveillance and behavioural control.” So isn’t any attempt to adopt a protectionist stance with regard to our own data likely to be perceived as a direct attack on these companies on our part? (Either that or we’ll find ourselves identified as a potential threat by the national security surveillance systems of the NSA, GCHQ, et al.)
Moreover, for Clare Birchall, it is not at all “clear that data belongs to us in the first place in order for it then to be given or taken”--or monetized, in this case. Instead, “we are within a dynamic sharing assemblage: always already sharing data with human or non-human agents.” Birchall introduces the term “shareveillance” to describe the “condition of consuming shared data and producing data to be shared in ways that shape” what she refers to as an “an ascendant shareveillant subjectivity.” This is a “subject who is at once surveillant (veiller ‘to watch’ is from the Latin vigilare, from vigil, ‘watchful’) and surveilled. To phrase it with a slightly different emphasis: the subject of shareveillance is one who simultaneously works with data and on whom the data works.”
The main problem I have with Lanier’s idea for a universal micropayment system, though, is that it maintains us in the position of being ubercapitalist microentrepreneurs--not just of ourselves but of our data too.