Blog: Data, Digital Life and Hybrid Existentialism: Part 1
A lens through which to view our digital selves
Background: As a serial-entrepreneur who advises companies on all things data including corporate data strategies, building up differentiated data assets, and how to make money using data-driven businesses, I often get asked my thoughts about the future of the industry, privacy, and ethical questions relating to how data is used in today’s technology-centric world and how we can create businesses that are profitable today (and tomorrow) while respecting user rights and other concerns.
This article is the first in a series of posts to help educate and set the stage for a public discussion on data and its impact on our lives. I’ll do a quick review of others’ thoughts and writing on data, human rights and regulation and also pose questions I believe need to be asked so that we can have a transparent and common framework to discuss options and solutions. In future posts I will put forth some ideas on what we can do individually, collectively (as groups or government), and as businesses.
Comments, questions, criticisms all welcome!
Why we need to re-examine our ethical and legal frameworks in the age of AI, robots, and online surrogates
In May 2017, in an article arguing for reform of anti-trust laws, The Economist declared “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.” While data does have many similarities to oil as The Economist writes, looking at data purely as a commodity like oil not only overlooks many key issues that face us today about data and the digital economy, but it also fails to capture the multifaceted forms that constitute data and give it value, and data’s impact on our lives both physically and digitally. Reform is needed but not just in the form of antitrust laws but in how we view fundamental human rights and their extension into our digital existence.
Data is not Oil, but the new Carbon
Carbon is a fundamental chemical element found in nature in various raw forms or allotropes. Each of these allotropes have different characteristics and properties that are valued differently as commodities and known more commonly by different names: carbon, coal, graphite, and diamond for example.
Carbon compounds also form the basis of all known life on earth; DNA is carbon-based and it is what underlies all living organisms in the physical world. When that DNA is “human” in our modern legal constructs, then that carbon is considered a natural person and has certain embodied rights and privileges (corporations and companies have some or even more of these same rights as juridical persons but that is a discussion for another time). Historically, the definition of what constitutes a person has evolved as have associated rights and privileges, but in modern civilized society there is a general consensus on what constitute universal human rights in the physical world.
As technology and social norms have evolved and created new challenges to existing human rights, we have debated and challenged the status quo and today we have processes in place to change these societal protections — or so we hope. For example, as new technologies have enabled harvested DNA to be matched against genealogy databases (created for different purposes) to help solve cold crime cases, we are faced with new moral debates about DNA and what is considered private and public domain and ethically allowed uses for this DNA in the real world.
Similarly, data serves a parallel function in the digital realm and we should be entertaining the same debates. Depending on the context of how it was formed and created, data— like carbon— also exhibits different properties and attributes that give it different values as a commodity. For example, generic raw data vs structured or relational data; industrial machine-generated data vs financial data about corporations.
As with carbon in the physical world, data forms the basis for all digital life on the planet. Without data, our digital identities would cease to exist. In fact, data now also forms the basis for bridging the physical world and the digital world for every human on the planet: DNA is a physical form of “data” — and therein lies the reason why we should not be treating all data as just another commodity like oil: data associated with a person and human identities are not commodities in an economic sense — to treat it as such would be violating the basic concept of universal human rights that we have strived to establish for the last few centuries.
As in the physical world, should we not be defining personal data in the digital world as a “person” or “human” and should we not be embodying certain fundamental rights and privileges to the rightful owners of these “digital” doppelgängers?
Coming up next: DataGangers, Digital Twins, and Digital Doppelgangers