Philip Sheldrake

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Verifying identity as a social intersection

people blur

First published to the AKASHA Foundation blog.


Co-author of Radical Markets Glen Weyl invited me to review Verifying Identity as a Social Intersection, co-authored with his colleague at Microsoft, Dr. Nicole Immorlica, and Stanford University's Professor Matthew Jackson.

The topic is so-called digital identity, a term that could be mistaken for how personal and group identity is manifest online, but actually relates to how we might employ digital technologies to transform society's accommodations of and approaches to identity.

It is not a challenge that anyone might describe as readily "solvable", as my recent webinar for SSImeetup makes plain. If anything, it is a fine exemplar for H.L. Mencken's witticism:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

This paper is an important contribution towards navigating this complexity appropriately. I do however identify a major problem — and therefore opportunity — relating to the conceptualizations of identity the authors have made their object. It appears they are intent on engineering for the trickiest yet perhaps the most societally important conceptualization, but then present it as a solution to a more mundane conceptualization, and one that desperately needs the balance of the former to mitigate its innate harmful potential.

I finish with a brief explanation of the AKASHA Foundation's work here. As you can imagine, this is core to our purpose.

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Good identity lives in between

boypoolrhizome

Written for Omidyar Network's Good ID project and first published to the project's blog.

good id


I love the way Derek Parfit introduces his book Reasons and Persons:

“We are particular people. I have my life to live, you have yours. What do these facts involve? What makes me the same person throughout my life, and a different person from you? And what is the importance of these facts? What is the importance of the unity of each life, and of the distinction between different lives, and different persons?”

The more you study it, the more you realize that identity is a tricky concept to grasp. There are many different ideas to describe what it is and what it does, but Parfit's emphasis of its innate social nature appeals to me. After all, what good can identity serve should you find yourself all alone on that fabled desert island, apart from different persons?

My identities form with others, as theirs are formed with others and with me. It's a product of relationships.

And those relationships? They're established and defined through interactions. Read more

Webinar on identity, interpersonal data and collective minds for SSI Meetup

boy with painted face

I was delighted to accept an invitation from Alex Preukschat to host a webinar earlier this week on the topic of digital identity for SSImeetup.org. My presentation is based on the reciprocally-defining, inseparable conceptions of identity, relationships, and personal data — or interpersonal data as I like to call it after my AKASHA colleague Mihai Alisie unjumbled my previous garbled attempts to make a distinction.

The presentation can be downloaded as a PDF here, and can be viewed as a Slideshare and video below. Please get in touch if you want to discuss any facet, over a cup of the good stuff if you find yourself London way.

 


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.

The interpersonal data at the heart of all human digital systems, including markets

The ecosystem of a coral reef

In light of the Radical Markets book chapter entitled Data as Labor, its co-author Glen Weyl invited me to write this post for the RadicalxChange blog, published 9 Feb 2019.


The RadicalxChange mission dedicates the community to “using dramatically expanded competitive, free and open market mechanisms to reduce inequality, build widely-shared prosperity, heal global political divides and build a richer and more cooperative social life.”

Our values are aligned and our purpose very similar, but I will describe here some important considerations in designing for personal data that may not yet have received attention by the RadicalXChange community.

Co-operating is essential

It is, I think, critical to outline the emphasis I adopt here in framing the problem and the opportunity. Whereas the RadicalxChange mission aims to have competition lead to greater co-operation, I treat competition and co-operation here as equal and concurrent. Here are two quotes by way of explanation.

The brilliant and indomitable biologist Lynn Margulis discovered that:

The view of evolution as a chronic bloody competition among individuals and species, a popular distortion of Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest,” dissolves before a new view of continual cooperation, strong interaction, and mutual dependence among life forms. Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.

And the progenitor of the invisible hand himself, Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, actually considered his Theory of Moral Sentiments to be the superior work. It is, as Gintis et al write, the perfect counterbalance.

Effective policies are those that support socially valued outcomes not only by harnessing selfish motives [Wealth of Nations / competition] to socially valued ends, but also by evoking, cultivating, and empowering public-spirited motives [Theory of Moral Sentiments / co-operation].

I had such a blend in mind a few years ago when I had a stab at defining the meaning of business beyond the outworn credo of shareholder value and the Newtonian simplicity of customer-centricity; that is, to establish and drive mutual value creation. Competitive and co-operative.
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The misleading name, metaphor defiance, and awesome potential of “personal data” — part 3 of 3

In the first post of this series I asserted that data is data. In other words, it's not like anything else. The second post explored and dismissed conceptualisations of data-as-property and data-as-labour. This, the last post in this series, explores data-as-reputation, data-as-public-good, and data-as-me, and then points to some architectural principles for a new direction — interpersonal data.

The problem of the way we frame the opportunity and problem

Data-as-reputation

Rachel Botsman discusses reputation scoring in her book What's Mine Is Yours (check your library), and summarises the opportunity in a later magazine article:

Imagine a world where banks take into account your online reputation alongside traditional credit ratings to determine your loan; where headhunters hire you based on the expertise you've demonstrated on online forums such as Quora; where your status from renting a house through Airbnb helps you become a trusted car renter on WhipCar; where your feedback on eBay can be used to get a head-start selling on Etsy; where traditional business cards are replaced by profiles of your digital trustworthiness, updated in real-time. Where reputation data becomes the window into how we behave, what motivates us, how our peers view us and ultimately whether we can or can't be trusted.

Welcome to the reputation economy, where your online history becomes more powerful than your credit history.

... It's the culmination of many layers of reputation you build in different places that genuinely reflect who you are as a person and figuring out exactly how that carries value in a variety of contexts.

The most basic level is verification of your true identity -- is this person a real person? Are they who they say they are?

There is nothing to dislike about the advantages touched upon here. Unfortunately, like most things in life, the upsides come with downsides. Read more

The misleading name, metaphor defiance, and awesome potential of “personal data” — part 2 of 3

In the preceding post I proposed that reframing personal data as interpersonal data is much more appropriate, more useful, more valuable. I also asserted that data is data — i.e. not like anything else. To support these points, this post explores and dismisses the dominant conceptualisation of personal data as property, and then reviews the less well-known data-as-labour framing.

The problem of the way we frame the opportunity and problem

Data-as-property

Let's linger a while on markets and the fundamental components of money and property. I'm working on the supposition that cryptonetworking may be integral to a future interpersonal data architecture, and given that Bitcoin is the genesis of cryptonetworking, it's doubly instructive to reflect on money.

Money is attributed value, but value is far deeper and broader than the mere monetary sense — in the money can't buy you love sense for example. Nevertheless, our current civilization is monotheistic in its veneration of the market, and our first inclinations when grappling with any shiny new idea is to see if we can't quantify its value and subject it to the manipulations of Adam Smith's invisible hand. Despite quite substantial evidence to the contrary, our idolatry of this mechanism truly marks it out as a religion imho.

Sometimes free markets work best. Sometimes well-regulated markets work best. Sometimes, markets don't work best.
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The misleading name, metaphor defiance, and awesome potential of “personal data”

We have a problem and an opportunity currently labelled "personal data".

The opportunity encompasses nothing less than a complete redesign of our lives and societies and our collective ability to grapple with complex adaptive systems including super-wicked problems — but this will remain elusive until we've wrestled with the "personal data" problem, including the problem of the way we frame the opportunity and problem.

While we needed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to stop some very disrespectful and frankly unethical and harmful practices relating to personal data, no regulation can require innovation. The innovation, indeed transformation, I'm talking about here is in the spirit if not the letter of the regulation. Perhaps the most prominent and simplest explanation for why it cannot be to the letter is contained in the Regulation's first definition (Article 4) by which "an identified or identifiable natural person" is thereafter known as a "data subject", which is entirely the wrong framing for the kind of innovation I envisage.

This topic is core to my work and this post serves two purposes. First, selfishly, it's a way to communicate efficiently without having to repeat the contents on a weekly basis. Second, I hope to identify more like and dislike minds in seeking the collective intelligence needed to explore the bountiful and indeed existentially critical opportunity sooner than later. Read more

Why decentralization needs more than cryptonetworks – the Internetome

Aldous Huxley (1937) regarded the decentralization of industry and government necessary for a better society. Norbert Wiener’s insights (1950) into the dynamics and ethics of humans and large computer systems hinted at the advantages. Marshall McLuhan (1962) anticipated a shift from the centralized mechanical age to the decentralized electronic age, coining the term global village as shorthand for such a welcome outcome. E.F. Schumacher (1973) considered decentralization allied with freedom and one of “the truths revealed by nature’s living processes”. Steven Levy’s hacker ethic (1984) includes the tenet “mistrust authority – promote decentralization”. And Nicholas Negroponte (1995) regards decentralization as one of the four cardinal virtues of the information society (alongside globalization, harmonization and empowerment).

When centralization is mediated by an organization, governmental or corporate, its best interests must be aligned perfectly and continuously with the parties subject to its gravity in the mediating context – otherwise decentralization must be preferred to avoid the appropriation and erosion of those parties' valuable agency. Importantly, decentralization demands decentralization at every level without exception for any exception would be centralization. By definition.

This post aims to scope the challenge that still lies ahead to secure decentralization even with the rise and rise of cryptonetworks such as Ethereum. For more information about decentralization in general and why it's important, see Decentralization – a deep cause of causes you care about deeply, written for the World Wide Web Foundation.

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The Digital Life Collective launches – a co-operative nurturing Tech We Trust

screenshot from the diglife.com website

The Digital Life Collective co-operative is officially launched today. Here's some text I helped develop for the new website to situate why our mission is important ...


Today, we cannot determine if technology is trustworthy else when it’s betraying our trust.

Trust is a vital aspect of every friendship, every family, every society. When you and another person trust each other, you’ve worked out that your interests are suitably aligned. You both believe the other will behave in ways that ‘look out’ for the two of you, that serve you both well.

Trust supports our interactions as social animals. We’ve evolved to look for clues that tell us how trustworthy another might be, and to explore ways to test and build that trust without really thinking about it. We end up with:

You trust someone else to do X.

What does trust mean in technological terms? Read more

Value flows when data flows meaningfully through sociotechnical networks – in search of the ideal data architecture

Competitive advantage and profitable growth doesn’t come from scale anymore. The rate at which big players in any and all industries beach their supertanker is unprecedented.

Competitive advantage and profitable growth doesn’t come from efficiency anymore either. What’s the point of making unwanted product efficiently?

Competitive advantage and profitable growth comes from adaptability. Pure and simple. Adapt or die.

A 2011 article in the Harvard Business Review pronounced adaptability the new competitive advantage. It asks how your managers can pick up the right signals to understand and harness change when they’re overwhelmed with changing information. The conclusion – instead of being really good at doing some particular thing, companies must be really good at learning how to do new things.

As Peter Senge points out, organizations only learn through individuals who learn, perhaps aided by machine learning these days. And learning craves meaningful data.

Lack of data was the problem of the 20th Century, yet the opportunity and challenge of the 21st is having too much of the stuff. This is the landscape of digital transformation and, I believe, the very bedrock of the meaning of business: establishing and driving mutual value creation (PDF).

Value flows when data flows meaningfully through sociotechnical networks, and I've been on a mission to find out how to make this happen. Read more