Willows & Oaks

A Short Story About Agency & the Future of Data

June 1, 2020 | Taylor Kendal

Photo by Rafał Rudol on Unsplash

The average person checks their phone 150 times per day…in the US alone, that’s about 45 billion data points being provided, BY YOU, FOR FREE, to a small handful of companies (and by extension, advertisers) every day. This is asymmetric warfare at scale; the stakes of which we’ve yet to fully comprehend.

Even if each data point (each like, swipe, or retweet) were only worth $.01, that’s still $450 million worth of data we as Americans willingly part with every single day. And amid the current pandemic, most of us are only further feeding the attention machine as we spend countless hours in our fancy new virtual realities.

Let’s not kid ourselves, as Americans, in the land of the free, the land of infinite opportunity, we don’t even own the most valuable asset on earth, our own data.

And our data represents not only our swipes and clicks, but also all of our knowledge and skills. As we think about the future of work, owning our own data will be critical as we develop new skills for jobs yet to be imagined. We’ve seen the need amid the current pandemic with nearly 15% of the US population unemployed, and we’ll see it in the future as artificial intelligence and automation continues to upend the employment landscape.

This is an unsustainable path towards a dystopia that future generations didn’t create and one they don’t deserve to inherit. I’m done with Duct Tape and Bandaids! We need to fundamentally rethink and rebuild public infrastructure so that individuals are valued as much as, if not more than, the institutions and corporations they support.

So with this in mind, let’s zoom in on education and the workforce, arguably our two most important social systems. What if students and workers had access to, and control of, their own data? What might be possible? What doors to opportunity might be opened and how might we begin to better understand the complex, interconnected systems of technology, data, and learning?

Let’s imagine Jenna, a part-time student, who was working as a bartender or retail clerk, one course shy of finishing up her associates degree with a dream of becoming a physical therapist. She’s accrued a ton of valuable skills, but owns nothing with currency in the labor market. She’s in debt, jobless and has no ownership of her own data. Sadly, this isn’t hypothetical. This is the story for thousands of Americans right now.

Here’s a quick analogy to take our minds outside: for centuries, we’ve basically been erecting a forest of institutional oak trees. Strong, rigid and powerful, but also vulnerable to a single strong gust of wind (say, a pandemic) which can cause these oaks to crack, or worse, crumble and fall. What if we imagined our institutions more like willows? Adaptable, flexible and resilient to external forces. What might be possible?

Imagine a world where you (and Jenna) owned and controlled your data and achievements. A world where knowledge, skills, and data were treated like assets that had currency in an open and equitable marketplace. This is the knowledge or learning economy that many early internet pioneers imagined, and one I believe is still possible and worth building.

It’s not too late. With advances in distributed systems, digital trust, and a shared focus on human (and digital) dignity, we can take action and help to plant tomorrow’s willows among the forest of old dying oaks.

Edu • Web3 • Culture • Travel • Identity → #BUIDL a rational mental map one neural node at a time. // Systems thinker; work in progress; thoughts derivative.