In 2012, the lovely and talented Kitty Leering asked me a question that changed the way I was thinking about rather a lot of the things I’d been thinking about. We were talking about Picnic 2012, and she asked me: “What does it mean to own yourself in the digital world?” I did a talk on the topic, and have continued to ponder the question ever since.
What does it mean? What is the self, in digital terms? In the physical world, it’s easy to see where I stop and not-I begins, but in the digital world it’s extremely muddy. Analogy: I go for a walk on the beach. I leave footprints. I don’t care that I’ve left footprints – unless it’s a crime scene, nobody does. But online, everybody wants a piece of my footprints. This is what a lot of that Big Data thing is made of – where I’ve been, what I’ve looked at while I was there, whom I chatted with, and so on. This is where the value is – if you know that stuff about me, the theory goes, you can predict what I’ll like/want/do next, and that prediction can be sold.
This is, for most people, a pretty abstract concept to try to get one’s head around. And since the real-world equivalent is so totally unimportant, it’s hard to find a workable starting point for the discussion that needs to happen, namely: what should we have ownership of, when it comes to our online identity? What should we have governance over, and what should we be able to extract value (even money) from?
Ownership, agency, control, value: these are the building blocks of the question, and I don’t think we (as an industry) are much closer to addressing them than we were a few years ago. If anything, we’ve been ignoring the question as loudly as possible over the past several years, as we develop more and more things that gather and use our data.
Some of these things – notably health & fitness wearables – altruistically promise to improve our very selves. And this is something that I still find problematic. The idea of an object + a set of algorithms actually improving everyone implies that everyone wants to be improved in the same ways. Which isn’t true, nor should it be. We (designers, developers, makers of things) seem to feel a need to draw conclusions, make definitive statements, in order to feel we’ve accomplished something of value. But is that really the case? I’m not interested in quantifying myself, I’m interested in understanding myself. And what makes me tick is different to what makes other people tick, whether the differences are small or vast.
Moving from the quantified self to the Clarified Self™ (thanks, Sam) is another way that we need to stop painting each other into corners with linear design techniques – what would happen if we stopped thinking about a conclusion as the goal and instead, tried to find ways to give the people who are interested in self-improvement information about themselves in such a way that they themselves can draw the conclusions, gain the understanding?
Technology has the capacity to do so much for us – to that end, surely it should be about releasing potential, not limiting it; expanding our horizons, not closing them down to a point. Yesterday I wrote about shifting control, and this is another example: in whose hands do we want the conclusions (and eventually decisions) about our lives to be? In ours as regular humans or in ours as designer/developer demigods?