Digital Birth

Are your digital decisions disadvantaging your children?

This is the backstory to my experience leading up to the Meeco launch, along with my view of the passion and energy that went into making Meeco possible. It is also the story about the digital birth of a baby boy who has been born at pivotal moment in history – his destiny is determined by the decisions we make today…

This is the first start up that I’ve truly been a part of, and it’s hard to explain how it feels to sprint on the frontline of change with the dogs of disaster snapping so closely at your heels – Scary? No – exhilarating.

I can tell you, however, that such an environment forces you to learn new tricks damn quick. So quick, that the next time dogs come barking, you can tell them to sit, roll over, and play dead.

This is something that the Meeco team knows all about. Leading up to launch, the Meeco Founder Katryna Dow asked me to do some background research for her keynote events in London, SFC, Sydney and Tel Aviv. She briefed me on a list of topics she wanted me to research, some more obvious than others, ranging from monkeys to Hollywood blockbuster Scifi’s and the emancipation of slavery.

As I sat there, frantically taking notes, trying to forge a connection between these seemingly polar ideas, a picture sprang to my mind and I began to see a dance.

Attribution: The Pan Pan at the Monico by Gino Severini

It was Gino Severini’s ‘Dance of the Pan Pan’, a painting from the futurist movement that came out of the industrial rise of Italy in the early 20th century. If there was ever an image to mirror the feelings of rapture and entanglement in the conundrums of our modern lives today, this would be it. Severini hit the nail right on its head – 100 years ago.

Our digital lives, who are we kidding – our lives, have become like a giant game of twister; we are so deeply entangled in the “big data” puzzle, that it’s almost impossible to imagine life could be any other way unless we fall. But ingenuity has a way of overcoming the impossible… especially when consensus seems to preach a different tune. After all, in a world where change is the only constant, it only makes sense to do so ourselves.

“Once she starts socially sharing details about her pregnancy (e.g. health updates, mood, ultrasounds and her general wellbeing), Charlotte will have established the first steps in Tom’s life long digital footprint. At this point, the manner in which Charlotte and Tom are valued and treated is no longer under their control.”

However, it’s not too late! The sky is not falling! We are currently at a pivotal moment in the big data puzzle, where we are faced with a choice. On one hand, we can continue to abide with those who after time and time again have breached our trust and disrespected us. Or on the other hand, we can choose to take back control of what is and always has been ours – our identities.

When preparing for these talks, we thought of how we could communicate this shift or dilemma, and we realised that the problem of big data starts with small data and the seemingly miniscule points of information we ooze out by the second. The little things, like an infinite jigsaw puzzle, eventually accumulate, and its more often the case that someone else gets to see the picture. To make these choices more relatable to our everyday lives, lets use “Charlotte” as an example.

Charlotte is in her early 30’s and financially comfortable. She is pregnant and recently discovered that she is having a boy. She is already settled on calling him Tom. To a data broker, Charlotte is now one of the most valuable ‘products’ on the planet.

Once she starts socially sharing details about her pregnancy (e.g. health updates, mood, ultrasounds and her general wellbeing), Charlotte will have established the first steps in Tom’s life long digital footprint… his digital birth. At this point, the manner in which Charlotte and Tom are valued and treated is no longer under their control.

According to a 2010 study by global security software maker AVG. more than 30% of American mothers have posted their sonograms online.

The same Washington Post article quotes that 92% of American babies will have an online presence by the age of two.

A quick search of ‘Pregnancy ultrasound’ on YouTube turns up 11,000 results – more than double the 5,230 results referenced by the Washington post in June 2011.

So by the time that Tom graduates university, he will have a bigger digital trail of information than anyone who currently exists.

From his physical birth, Tom will live in a world where everything he does online will be tracked, his entire life will be connected to the Internet in some way. He will learn to read, write, play, socialize, exercise, flirt and engage with all other aspects of life through a connected planet.

Charlotte will also learn to interact with her world and her son through increasingly online mediums and methods. What we have come to know as the Internet of Things or ‘IoT’.

IoT, is simply a term that explains how the actual world is becoming increasingly virtual and vice versa. IoT is becoming part of our daily life is evidenced by wearable technologies like a Fitbit or a connected watch or Google Glass. Soon in will be commonplace to control ‘things’ in our home like thermostats and the refrigerator via a phone or wrist device. Smart TV’s will join social networks and branch into entertainment services and virtual dating.

“So by the time that Tom graduates university, he will have a bigger digital trail of information than anyone who currently exists.”

As the world inflates itself with all this information, we will see business, companies, governments and individuals increasingly eager to access and utilize all this knowledge. Using the example of Tom, the opportunities available to him, such going to university, securing a career or even his ability to have partner, will be subject to the information that is available from the connected world.

So who will own all of it and who will it benefit?

Will Tom be afforded the basic rights and freedoms described in a democratic country. Will he understand privacy in same way his grandmother would describe it, or will he grow up in a world where his every move is under surveillance?

Right now we make personal bargains with services like Google and Facebook in exchange for convenience and for what looks like a good deal. They provide me with a platform to connect with others and I don’t have to pay. However, what most of us don’t realise is that this exchange is far from fair, and that personal information has become a new and preferred currency, which makes us the new commodities.

Not convinced? Read: Google has a growth plan based on kids

As it currently stands, most of the data and content we create online is not legally ours to control. We are forced to accept cookies, or check “I Agree” to terms and conditions we never read. We opt for convenience over transparency. Therefore, the advantages in analyzing all this data, is increasingly remote to our everyday life, and increasingly profitable to those behind the large-scale aggregation; the brokers and advertisers.

Ultimately, its up to Charlotte to choose how her family will transact and engage online. However it is also up to Charlotte to make decisions, which will determine Tom’s future, including his security and prosperity.

If you had the opportunity to personally benefit from your own data with the same powerful analytics that large companies currently do, would you take it?

If the answer is “yes” or “maybe” then the first step is to learning and becoming aware of how much information about yourself is currently out there. Educating yourself about yourself and the ways you interact online is a powerful first step towards being more empowered.

“From birth, Tom will live in a world where everything he does online will be tracked, his entire life will be connected to the Internet in some way.”

In my role as researcher here at Meeco, I keep discovering one thing that jumps above the rest. When it comes to social change and the evolution of society, when there is a shift in the commodity exchanges between the masses and long established power structures, humanity leaps, and progress comes forward in a wave and sometimes a revolution.

Presently, we can feel the ripples of a tsunami on its way as we move from a currency economy to an information-based economy. The question that remains is who will we become, and where will we be once we surface from this change?

Meeco has a vision of a future in where the possibility to realise the potential in ourselves can be actualized. We see a time where we are not judged as products, consumers or users, but equals.

For the first time in the short history of the Internet, this sort of dream can be realized through the evolution of our technology. Like Meeco, we are starting to see the emergence of services designed to give us more control, make life easier and meet our curiosity. But the question still remains, “will it be enough?”.

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