Aral Balkan: Digital Feudalism

Orde Saunders' avatarPublished: by Orde Saunders

Aral Balkan (@Aral) was talking about digital feudalism at the Lighthouse in Brighton, these are my notes from his talk.

Digial serfs don't have the option of owning their data, they have to rent it from corporate landlords.

50 years ago computers were very specialist pieces of equipment.  Then came personal computers, not used in the business.  They then became portable.  At the same time the telephone followed that path.  The iPhone combined these two paths.

Technology gives us superpowers - beyond our physical limits.  A notepad and pen is an extension of our brains.  Same for cameras, microphones &c.  The smart phone gives us all these superpowers.  With always-on wearables they are cybernetic enhancements.  We are cyborgs.  These devices are now essential for us to experience the world.

Apple have a range of devices that are tied together.  With iCloud you have a continuous client experience.  Optimised experiences on every device and an optimised experience across all devices.  Google is the same.

Hardware, services, software, connectivity are all controlled by these players.  This creates an experience.

A bad experience can be created by combining good features in a bad way.  What was once a good experience can be made into a bad experience when additional features are added without considering how this effects the whole.  An experience is as bad as it's weakest link.  Consumers do not think in terms of features, they think of an experience.  We are living in the age of experiences.  We have feature parity of most features.

All the people who are doing this are closed systems:  Google, Twitter, Facebook, Apple.

How about a service that gave you free mail forever but read all your messages and gave you adverts to go with it?  This is Gmail.  This isn't a conspiracy theory - it's a business model.  They monetise your data. 

The experience machine knows everything about you, the world and can read your mind.  Google knows about you and the world.  Devices, services and connectivity start to read the outward signs of what's on your mind.  When it was just a search engine they didn't track you - that happened after the Patriot Act.  Now they give you games to get the data they want.  Now they have devices like the subsidised Nexus 4 that is a great data entry device that they control.  If you use them as an ISP they get the data no matter what device you use - they control the connection.  There will be people that will only know the internet as a Google sign in.

Free services need data to survive.  Your data.  Even if you willingly give them your data you can't really control what they do with it.  Facebook slowly added more data to public by default.  People find it hard to deal with defaults that change - it's a well known dark pattern.  The companies that we use to store our data now share everything with the state.  It's easier for the state to get it from these few corporations than it is for them to get it from lots of individuals.

How severe an intrusion is surveillance?  If we are cyborgs where do we draw the boundaries of the person?  Surveillance then becomes an assault  on the person.  Privacy is about controllig what you want to share and it's article 12 of the universal declaration of human rights.  Terms and conditions may apply is a documentary to watch.

What is the alternative?  Let's look at the experience machine again:  Open data knows about the world.  Own your own data and intelligence.  Own your own tools with open source.  Combining these is owning your digital self but this isn't easy.  Closed likes closed and doesn't like open.  We need beautiful defaults and have the configuration below these.

Firefox OS is the best open contender in the open mobile space.  It doesn't have sensible defaults.  It doesn't have friendly error messages.  It doesn't have discoverable UI features.  It doesn't empower people.  The fact it is open is not enough but we need to empower though the experience.

Open source is still feature led.  Enthusiast, enterprise and consumer are all roles we can play, not identities.  Enthusiasts are not necessarily the best people to make a great experience for consumers.  Trickle down technology doesn't necessarily work.  When you design for an audience then don't be surprised when you don't meet the needs of a different audience.

Design is about focus, we need to say no - we need an editor.  Design is not veneer, it has to come from the top.  Design leads development, development informs design.  Design is assumption, development is creation.  Design is about understanding humans so we can make things that empower and delight humans.

Feature driven closed.  Expereince driven closed.  Features driven open.  We don't have experience driven open.  All the great experiences are closed, we need to change that.  If we do it right we will have an advantage over the closed services as their needs are orthogonal to the needs of the user.  Experience driven open is aligned to the needs of the users.

Prometheus is going to build a phone that is experience driven open.

Digital freelanders own their own data and can protect their human rights.

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