This snapshot of a plausible near future may not represent outcomes of our current trajectory, neither is it an unrealizable dream. It is, instead, a brief vision of what could happen and what could be achieved if we made different—even if difficult—decisions about techno-politics. I maintain that we still have the ability to change course. Doing so, however, will require a critical combination of theory, creativity, politics, and practice. My hope is that this snapshot will be a step towards inspiring us to envision alternative futures and make a new present.
Emancipation from (Data) Accumulation
It was the tech companies and financiers who first argued that data must be seen as more than merely a technological issue. They argued data should, instead, be treated as capital and commodity, as a valuable asset that must be accumulated as such.1 Thought leaders consulted with capitalists. Financial elites plotted about how best to generate value from all the data constantly being gathered from every person, process, and thing. They relied on the opacity of these esoteric matters to shield them from inquiry. The impacts of designating data as capital were not obvious, nor were they immediate. But others were catching on that data was more than just a thing that excited geeks. Data was now an important part of contemporary political economy.
The rampant practices of data extraction and hoarding became too difficult to ignore. There was an arrogance to it; a sense that tech platforms and service providers could get away with mass surveillance and behavioral manipulation. The standard narrative was that people didn’t know or didn’t care because the “free” products were all worth it. In reality, people just didn’t know what to do about it. They didn’t know there were better options.
The accumulation of data—of this capital and commodity that seemed to define the info age—grew at an unprecedented rate. It generated value for so many, and in so many different ways. Ironically, even with all that data at their fingertips, there was both willful and unwitting ignorance to the growth of an enormous data bubble. This bubble touched nearly all aspects of society: it affected how policing was done, how cities were governed, how production was managed, how finance was organized. And when it burst—like an unfortunate spawn of the dot-com bubble in the late 90’s and the financial crash in the late 00’s—the trust and tolerance people had towards unconstrained economies of data began to evaporate. No longer just the concern of specialists, data ownership became a battleground for debate and protest.
As issues of inequality became more prevalent—serving as catalysts for social movements and as central parts of political platforms—the vast data divide was criticized as another way in which Wall Street and Silicon Valley cross-pollinated for their own mutual benefit. Protesters and politicians alike raised concerns about huge concentrations of data in the hands of a small class of elites. The ownership of so much data-as-capital nurtured the growth of monopolistic companies with vast wealth and power—plus the ambitions to match. By some estimates these data-driven tech titans wielded more capital and influence—and several were more vicious—than the robber barons of the first Gilded Age. It became clear to many people that, for these executives and entrepreneurs, “disruption” was more like a scorched earth technique for obliterating competition and “innovation” meant finding a way to secure market position.
People began questioning why corporations should own all that data about the world, about us, in the first place. What right did they have? Was the ability to extract, store, and analyze the data reason enough for them to hoard and use it for whatever purposes they wished? Why should the means of data production and the data banks be owned by a small class who use those systems to dividualize, control, and commodify everybody and everything else? The answers to these questions often relied on reasserting the status quo—this is how things are done, how could it be otherwise, changing things would be perilous—but those reasons were no longer good enough.
After the bubble burst many social movements took on new energy, reinvigorated by a fresh harm caused by an old regime. There were demonstrations and direct actions, boycotts and protests, organizing and lobbying. Politicians could hardly ignore the vox populi: The groundswell of demand for sanctions and for a new paradigm that would benefit society, not subject it to the impulses of dataveillance capitalism. The crux of the movement came when political pressure finally translated into legal action. These new rules focused on one of the root issues: the economic status of data.
Data is no longer treated as a kind of private capital, which companies can accumulate and profit from simply by owning, selling, and/or renting the data. Instead, data is designated as personal property and as public good. People are free to gather and use data about themselves for their own personal purposes, such as the kind created by wearable trackers or home devices. But when it came to the large data banks—which aggregate and analyze big data sets about society, governance, and infrastructure—a new institution had to be created to manage them: the People’s Data Repository.
The PDR administers the collection, access, and use of data-as-a-public-good. Rather than, for instance, a company like Uber—monopolistic, extractive, politically ruthless—gathering all that data about mobility for their own benefit, the data is used to enhance and expand public transportation. With the data, analytics, and applications provided by the PDR, nothing precludes publically owned, non-profit agencies from building services that take full advantage of information technology. It is now no longer acceptable to allow private entities to claim ownership over what ought to be common goods and public services. Additionally, the PDR does more than provide support to public agencies. It also assists companies that are organized with social ownership in mind, like employee cooperatives and citizen equity firms. Such companies are given the resources to produce and are encouraged to innovate. They are rewarded for providing goods and services that contribute to society; if they work towards the public benefit, the amount of data they can access from PDR far outstrips what they would likely have collected on their own under the old system. By setting terms on access to the data needed to operate technological systems, the idea is to begin weakening the techno-capitalist imperatives that incentivize exploitative and extractive structures.
In terms of institutional structure, the PDR is similar to the Federal Reserve, in that it oversees data policy, regulates data services, and is independent within the government. However, unlike the technocratic structure of the Fed, the PDR incorporates regular democratic, participatory processes into its decision-making. This constant feedback, accountability, and oversight helps ensure the PDR supports programs that people need and desire—rather than ones driven by profit and privilege. The PDR’s founding principles are simple: If data comes from the people, then it should belong to the people and be used for public goods.
1: See, for instance, a recent white paper released by MIT Technology Review Custom and Oracle (2016) called, “The Rise of Data Capital.”