Tag Archives: future economy

Why We Should Treat Our Data As (Valuable) Property

Many years ago, I created my first email address before logging into the internet. It was a simple AOL account. I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think I was creating anything valuable. At the time, the internet was limited to slow, clunky dial-up that had little to offer in terms of content. I doubt anyone saw what they were doing as creating something of great value.

I still have that email address today in case you’re wondering. I still regularly use it. I imagine a lot of people have an email address they created years ago for one of those early internet companies that used to dominate a very different digital world. They may not even see that address or those early internet experiences as valuable.

Times have changed and not just in terms of pandemics. In fact, times tends to change more rapidly in the digital world than it does in the real world. The data we created on the internet, even in those early days, became much more valuable over time. It served as the foundation on which multi-billion dollar companies were built.

As a result, the data an individual user imparts onto the internet has a great deal of value. You could even argue that the cumulative data of large volumes of internet users is among the most valuable data in the world.

Politicians, police, the military, big businesses, advertising agencies, marketing experts, economists, doctors, and researchers all have use for this data. Many go to great lengths to get it, sometimes through questionable means.

The growing value of this data raises some important questions.

Who exactly owns this data?

How do we go about treating it from a legal, fiscal, and logistical standpoint?

Is this data a form of tangible property, like land, money, or labor?

Is this something we can exchange, trade, or lease?

What is someone’s recourse if they want certain aspects of their data removed, changed, or deleted?

These are all difficult questions that don’t have easy answers. It’s getting to a point where ownership of data was an issue among candidates running for President of the United States. Chances are, as our collective data becomes more vital for major industries, the issue will only grow in importance.

At the moment, it’s difficult to determine how this issue will evolve. In the same way I had no idea how valuable that first email address would be, nobody can possibly know how the internet, society, the economy, and institutions who rely on that data will evolve. The best solution in the near term might not be the same as the best solution in the long term.

Personally, I believe that our data, which includes our email addresses, browsing habits, purchasing habits, and social media posts, should be treated as personal property. Like money, jewels, or land, it has tangible value. We should treat it as such and so should the companies that rely on it.

However, I also understand that there are complications associated with this approach. Unlike money, data isn’t something you can hold in your hand. You can’t easily hand it over to another person, nor can you claim complete ownership of it. To some extent, the data you create on the internet was done with the assistance of the sites you use and your internet service provider.

Those companies could claim some level of ownership of your data. It might even be written in the fine print of those user agreements that nobody ever reads. It’s hard to entirely argue against such a claim. After all, we couldn’t create any of this data without the aid of companies like Verizon, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. At the same time, these companies couldn’t function, let alone profit, without our data.

It’s a difficult question to resolve. It only gets more difficult when you consider laws like the “right to be forgotten.” Many joke that the internet never forgets, but it’s no laughing matter. Peoples’ lives can be ruined, sometimes through no fault of their own. Peoples’ private photos have been hacked and shared without their permission.

In that case, your data does not at all function like property. Even if it’s yours, you can’t always control it or what someone else does with it. You can try to take control of it, but it won’t always work. Even data that was hacked and distributed illegally is still out there and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Despite those complications, I still believe that our data is still the individual’s property to some extent, regardless of what the user agreements of tech companies claim. Those companies provide the tools, but we’re the ones who use them to build something. In the same way a company that makes hammers doesn’t own the buildings they’re used to make, these companies act as the catalyst and not the byproduct.

Protecting our data, both from theft and from exploitation, is every bit as critical as protecting our homes. An intruder into our homes can do a lot of damage. In our increasingly connected world, a nefarious hacker or an unscrupulous tech company can do plenty of damage as well.

However, there’s one more critical reason why I believe individuals need to take ownership of their data. It has less to do with legal jargon and more to do with trends in technology. At some point, we will interact with the internet in ways more intimate than a keyboard and mouse. The technology behind a brain/computer interface is still in its infancy, but it exists and not just on paper.

Between companies like Neuralink and the increasing popularity of augmented reality, the way we interact with technology is bound to get more intimate/invasive. Clicks and link sharing are valuable today. Tomorrow, it could be complex thoughts and feelings. Whoever owns that stands to have a more comprehensive knowledge of the user.

I know it’s common refrain to say that knowledge is power, but when the knowledge goes beyond just our browsing and shopping habits, it’s not an unreasonable statement. As we build more and more of our lives around digital activities, our identities will become more tied to that data. No matter how large or small that portion might be, we’ll want to own it as much as we can.

It only gets more critical if we get to a point where we can fully digitize our minds, as envisioned in shows like “Altered Carbon.” At some point, our bodies are going to break down. We cannot preserve it indefinitely for the same reason we can’t preserve a piece of pizza indefinitely. However, the data that makes up our minds could be salvaged, but that opens the door to many more implications.

While that kind of technology is a long way off, I worry that if we don’t take ownership of our data today, then it’ll only get harder to do so in the future. Even before the internet, information about who we are and what we do was valuable.

This information forms a big part of our identity. If we don’t own that, then what’s to stop someone else from owning us and exploiting that to the utmost? It’s a question that has mostly distressing answers. I still don’t know how we go about staking our claim on our data, but it’s an issue worth confronting. The longerwe put it off, the harder it will get.

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Why Capitalism Will Survive Technological Progress (To A Point)

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There’s a popular perception among those who speculate about the future. It has less to do with the technology and progress that we’ll make, as a society, and more to do with what will be rendered obsolete. Like dial-up internet or VHS tapes, there will be many artifacts of our current society that are destined to become relics of a bygone era.

Near the top of the list of those things people can’t wait to get rid of is capitalism. When I say “capitalism,” though, I don’t necessarily mean everything from the concept of money to big corporations to having 500 different kinds of covers for your cell phone. I’m more referring to the kind of economic system that creates extreme income inequality, mass exploitation of workers, and price gouging.

While I can appreciate sentiments of people who feel that way about a system where the inequalities are well-documented, I have some good news and some bad news for those looking forward to that post-capitalist utopia.

Capitalism is NOT going to become obsolete, but it will take on a radically different form.

I say that as someone who has written plenty about the upheavals our society will face when technologies like artificial intelligence, human enhancement, and advanced robotics become more refined. The economic, social, and political system, as we know it today, will not be able to function in that environment.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will disappear like VHS tapes. That’s especially true of our current form of capitalism. It’s already changing before our eyes, but it’s set to change even more in the coming decades. It may get to a point where it’s hard to call it “capitalism” by our current definition, but it will still exist to a certain extent.

Whether you’re a hardcore libertarian or a self-proclaimed socialist, it’s hard to overlook the flaws in capitalism. This is a system that is prone to corruption, negatively impacts the environment, and will gladly eschew health concerns in the interests of profits. Basically, if you’ve ever dealt with a cable company, the tobacco lobby, or the banking industry, you’ve experienced those flaws first-hand.

Many of the flaws, however, are a byproduct of logistical limitations. Human beings are not wired to make sense of the plethora of economic forces that govern the cost, production, distribution, and marketing of goods. We’re barely wired to assemble IKEA furniture. The human race evolved to survive in the plains of the African Savanna, not the bustling streets of New York City.

Even with these limitations, humanity has managed to achieve a lot from this flawed system. Despite its shortcomings, it has been the catalyst for modern society. The cities, industries, and technological advancement that we’ve undergone over the past 200 years would not have been possible without capitalism. Say what you will about the profit motive. Apple would not be a trillion-dollar company without it.

It’s for that reason, along with the knowledge of capitalism’s many documented failures, that emerging trends in technology is more likely to smooth out the edges of the system rather than render it obsolete entirely. As someone who groans every time he sees his cable bill, I admit I’m eager for those refinements.

I still don’t blame others for hoping that the entire system is scraped. The thinking is that increasing efficiencies in automation, improvements in manufacturing at the nano-scale, and advances in artificial intelligence will undercut the key foundations of capitalism. Why would corporations, marketing gimmicks, or brand restrictions even exist in a world run by intelligent machines, enhanced humans, and 3D printers?

It’s not an entirely flawed notion. We’re already seeing plenty of disruptions in established systems due to technology. Landlines are disappearing, streaming media has destroyed brick-and-mortar rental stores like Blockbuster, and self-driving cars will likely end the taxi and trucking industry as we know it.

Further down the line, even more industries will break down when you scale up and expand these same technologies. A sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could manage the banking and financial industry without any middle men, who are going to be prone to corruption. That same intelligence won’t be prone to the same panics that have plagued capitalism for centuries.

Other technologies will render distressing institutions like sweatshops obsolete, thanks to advances in robotics and 3D printing. A lot of the exploitations surrounding capitalism, both in terms of people and the environment, come from labor and production costs. Mitigating or ending that exploitation can and likely will be done without undercutting capitalism, if only because it’s more efficient in the long run.

Then, there’s the prospect of human enhancement. That, more than anything, will change the nature of society and economics in ways nobody alive today can predict. Beyond undermining the multi-trillion dollar health care industry that exists today, changes to the human condition could fundamentally change the way the economy functions.

Even with all those changes, though, I believe a certain facet capitalism will survive. Even in a society full of enhanced humans equipped with brain implants, perfectly refined genes, and molecular assemblers that can build anything imaginable, there will be a market. There will be a form of currency. There will even be institutions, human and robotic, to manage it all.

That’s because, even in a society where hunger, disease, and poverty of all kinds has been eliminated, there’s still one market that will always exist. That market is escaping boredom. It doesn’t matter how healthy, content, or advanced you are. You’ll still want to avoid getting bored and this is where the future of capitalism truly lies.

I believe that boredom will be the only remaining plague in the future. I also believe that technology can only do so much manage our wants and needs. At some point, we’re still going to seek novel experiences. We’re still going to want to explore new feelings, whether that involves studying science or visiting a futuristic theme park like “Westworld.” The demand will be there and that’s where capitalism comes in.

It may end up being the case that those experiences will be the closest thing we have to a tangible currency. In a society where technology has made so many other resources accessible and abundant, it’s the only currency that has tangible and perceived value. There may still be other forms of money built around it, such as new crypto-currencies, but there will still be real market forces at work.

Some of those forces will have the same flaws we see now. Much of the current system depends on people working to produce goods and services, using the money they make to buy those goods and services, and participating in a vast network of investment, marketing, and distribution of resources. It’s a complex, chaotic, and inherently unmanageable system.

There will probably be failures, missteps, and conflicts in managing this new marketplace of experiences. Entire companies may emerge, possibly from some that exist today, that compete over who crafts those experiences and provides them to customers, either over the internet or directly into someone’s brain. That competition is likely to produce corruption and scandal, albeit in a very different form.

Having advanced artificial intelligence and humans that aren’t at the mercy of their caveman brains will help, but only to a point. As long as society is full of individuals seeking different wants and needs, there will be some form of capitalism necessary to meet them both. Trying to avoid or subvert that probably won’t lead to a better system, as the many failures of alternative systems have proven.

Like our current system of capitalism, there will be flaws. Even enhanced humans and artificial intelligence will have limits that need refinement over time. It’s those very shortcomings, though, that will help forge a better system overall. Again, it’s impossible to tell what forms they’ll take, but so long as there are markets, there will be capitalists seeking to profit from them.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, philosophy, Sexy Future