Ubiquitous Commons: The Struggle to Control Our Data

Over the past twenty years, there has been such a proliferation of computers, smartphones, digital devices, surveillance cameras, maps, mobile applications, sensors and much else – all of it networked through the Internet, wireless and telephone connections – that an unimaginably vast new body of personal data is being generated about us, individually and collectively.    

The question is, Can we possibly control this data to serve our own desires and purposes?  Or will we be modern-day techno-peasants controlled by the neo-feudal masters on the hill, Facebook, Google and Twitter and their secret and not-so-secret partners in the US Government?

Finding an effective response to this worsening situation is not going to be easy, but one brave initiative is attempting to start a new conversation about how to build a new, more socially benign data order.  The Ubiquitous Commons, a project launched by Italians Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, seeks to find new technological, legal and social protocols for managing the sheer ubiquity of networked information, and for assuring us some control over our digital identities.  Their basic idea is “to promote the adoption of a new type of public space in which knowledge is a common," which they describe as "ubiquitous commons."

Iaconesi and Persico believe that vital public and personal information should not be controlled by large proprietary enterprises whose profit-driven activities are largely hidden from public view and accountability.  Rather, we should be able to use our own data to make our own choices and develop “ubiquitous commons” to meet our needs. 

Why should Facebook and its social networking peers be able to control the authentication of our digital identities?  Why should they decide what visual and textual works shall be publicly available and archived for posterity?  Why should their business models control the types of insights that can be gleaned from “their” (proprietary) Big Data based on our information -- while government, academic researchers and the general public are left in the dark? 

I remember how Google crowed that its search results could make better, more timely predictions about the flu and other contagious diseases than the Centers for Disease Control.  I don't see this type of unaccountable, god-like power over social information as so wonderful and benign, especially when lucrative business self-interests may selectively govern what gets disclosed and what is used for private strategic advantage.  

At the Berlin Transmediale Festival in January, Iaconesi and Persico said:

Each instant, the data we produce is used, processed, purchased and sold in multiple ways, and it becomes the object of myriads of experiments. Only a handful of these are clearly perceivable. Most of them are completely not transparent, opaque, ungraspable. Algorithms of multiple types, distributed across multiple layers, locations, and operations, constantly process the data we produce, and the data which is produced from the processing, and so on, in a chain which becomes ever more opaque and whose effects show up on the content we see online, on the products we buy, on the services we use, on our jobs, on the ways in which we are classified in our education, work, insurances, health, relations and more.

Ubiquitous Commons aims at creating a protocol which is legal and technical/technological through which people and organizations will be able to define how they wish the data they produce to be used.

Few organizations or public figures are even talking about this quiet, undeclared political struggle, perhaps because there is no off-the-shelf answer. It must be created. But it's important to start this discussion because the struggle over our personal data and digital identities will have profound implications for democratic self-governance. If the NSA is able to act as a kind of uber-Stasi surveillance state, in selective collaborations with data vacuums like Facebook and Google, then the very idea of citizen sovereignty in our “democracy” will degenerate even more than it already has, leaving a troubling "legitimacy void" for all institutions.

Iaconesi, Persico and their partners aim to make data streams far more accessible and intelligible by (among other things) mapping them onto physical spaces. The results of this process are often striking. Iaconesi once prepared a series of heat maps of Turin, Italy, generated by marking the location that various social networking posts originated from. Two animated maps showed the intensity of posts in Italian versus those in Arabic over a period of time, plotting the movement of the two communities. “They are two different cities,” Iaconesi noted. Another map showed each location in which a user described something that he or she would like to change about Turin. “If I was mayor, I would look at this map,” Iaconesi said.

Iaconesi and Persico have conducted workshops in Rome, São Paulo, Hong Kong, New Haven (Connecticut) and other cities around the world to help local governments, urban planners, architects, artists, and others to make better use of data that is available. 

Some social networking data can be analyzed to infer and map the emotional moods of people and their locations at the time.  When such data was analyzed and plotted on a map of New Haven, home of Yale University, it showed “a reddish blotch centered on the Yale campus, a palpable impression left by term papers, lab results, and midterms” – while the “epicenter of joy” in another map was located in the nearby suburban town of Hamden. 

Should Facebook be the only entity allowed to assess data flows and to use them for its own proprietary goals?  yet if city governments and ordinary people are to access to such data, we clearly need to figure out new principles and techniques for legally and technologically managing them.  

It’s unclear at this stage how far the Ubiquitous Commons vision will go, but obviously one can only begin by beginning. The project describes itself as “an international research effort dedicated to understanding the transformation of data, information and knowledge in the age of ubiquitous technologies.” 

Ubiquitous Commons wants to develop new “critical understandings of the social, anthropological, psychological, aesthetic, political mutations” that hyper-interconnectivity among human beings (and their digitized bodies, objects and places) is creating.  It is also dedicated to “creating tools and practices” that can help bring about “new institutional and organizational models that are based on peer-to-peer, ecosystemic governance.” 

For example, why shouldn't citizens in a city be able to use P2P systems to crowdfund a civic action or enter into a shared decisionmaking process?  Public administrators should be able to monitor real-time data feeds concerning transportation, safety, the environment and public health.  All sorts of specially crafted maps could use data to reveal where people are happier, where more crime occurs, and where certain types of social and economic activities are surging. 

To advance all of these ends, Ubiquitous Commons wants to develop “legal, technological and philosophical toolkits” for understanding how data commons could work in practice. As a proof of concept, could programmers develop web browser plugins that would apply Ubiquitous Commons principles?  How should the law regard the uses of data?  Iaconesi and Persico would like to develop as set of Ubiquitous Commons protocols to help create “a real-time museum of the city,” plotting its pulsating digital life, flows of people and economic activity, social moods, community life, and more. 

In short:  data for the common good, not just for private profit.   Data for self-governance and democratic choices.