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.