Philip Sheldrake

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Category: Digital Life Collective

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.

Read more

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

the hi:project and the Digital Life Collective

The Digital Life Collective

This is the newsletter about the Digital Life Collective sent to hi:project subscribers 24th April 2017 and posted to the hi:project blog.


The hi:project team is collaborating with others interested in trustworthy and empowering technologies. We’re working to launch the Digital Life Collective and we'd love you to be part of it.

Now for anyone interested in the trials and tribulations of an ambitious, open-source, nonprofit vision such as the hi:project, I provide a fuller debrief below. For those who prefer their updates bitesize, everything you need is contained in the next six paragraphs.

You’ll recall the hi:project has some mighty challenges in its sights. We will help: solve personal data & privacy; secure a citizen-centric Internet of Things; transform accessibility & digital inclusion.

Just as for many free open source software projects, no-one profits with the hi:project but rather everyone because of it. And therein lies both the broad opportunity and the deep problem. If everyone secures the return on investment, if the profit cannot be privatised, who exactly is going to make the investment?

In other words, markets aren’t designed to address such particular potential, but that hasn’t stopped us appealing to commercial players – more on how that works below. Moreover, it doesn’t seem foundations can fund and foster such fundamental architecture. And our brush with academic funding was a brush off. In all, we’ve been working across four fronts, failing at these three, and seeing if we can succeed at the fourth.

At first the fourth appears counter-intuitive ... if the hi:project seemed too big, fifty of us have banded together so far to go bigger. The Digital Life Collective is a co-operative dedicated to “tech we trust for the world we want”, and today is the day we go all official. Today we put the incorporation paperwork in the post and invite you to become a co-founding member so that together we can give the market a miss for the moment, pause the powwow with foundations, give up grinding the grant applications … and start simply co-operating.

Technology of, by and for the people. Our tech, not their tech. Find out more now at www.diglife.com.

As for engineering the hi:project … well we’ll be making our case to the Collective in due time.

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The debrief

From the moment we started talking about the hi:project, we contrasted the user interface (UI) and the human interface (HI), the former describing the status quo in which you, the mere user, are actually the used, where you are in fact the product being sold, the civilian being controlled. By adopting HI as our terminology, we communicate the intent to reinstate your sovereignty, your dignity, your humanity. Read more