Data as the New Soil, Not Oil
A conversation with futurist Jerry Michalski about how we need to build a "betterverse," not the metaverse.
For readers new to The Connector, the focus of this week’s post may seem far away from the fire that is burning, eating away at American democracy as the 2022 midterms approach. If you’re only here for the topic of political organizing, maybe this week’s issue isn’t for you. But over the years I’ve been fortunate in getting to know a lot of well-meaning people whose political engagement is rooted in their experiences in the world of tech, and who often come at the issues with different eyes. Given how much the internet and the newly dominant platforms of Big Tech have destabilized and warped our politics, it’s essential that we pay attention not just to short-term electoral challenges but to the longer-term shifts that keep restructuring society and culture. And so this week, I’m happy to present the edited transcript of a recent conversation I had with my dear friend Jerry Michalski, who has been tethered at the intersection of technology and society since the early 1990s, when he was the managing editor of Release 1.0, a tech industry newsletter founded by Esther Dyson.
Jerry is a ur-connector of people and ideas, much of which he makes accessible not just personally but also through a unique project called Jerry’s Brain, where he’s been mind-mapping the people, ideas, articles and encounters he’s had for more than 20 years (and which we include a few links to below, relevant to our conversation). Right now his main focus is the meta problem of collaborative sensemaking, which he is working on via a project called Open Global Mind. He runs several monthly discussion groups, one of which, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, I’ve been participating in for years. It was during one of those monthly Zooms that I heard him mention the ideas that we take up below, arising in the context not just of Mark Zuckerberg’s plans for the “metaverse” but also the challenge we face when people in society stop sharing the same version of reality.
Micah Sifry: There are two things you said recently that caught my attention, as we struggle on a daily basis to make sense of the world that we're living in and the chaos that we're living through. The first thing you said was that we need to start thinking of data as the new soil, as opposed to data as the new oil. What are you thinking about here?
Jerry Michalski: My last 30 years of thinking have been informed by realizing I didn't like the word “consumer” or the “consumerization” of our world, which involves capturing all our data and then analyzing the hell out of it. Now much of what we call big data and data science is using that data to manipulate us to buy more stuff.
The first time I heard that “data is the new oil,” I'm like: crap! Because this saying is an extension of the data-extractivist, invade-our-privacy kind of thing.
If you take the data-as-oil analogy seriously, then there's pools of data which we need to sequester so that only we can drill into them and suck up their value. Then we sell off the resulting byproducts, whether it's petroleum for burning, or lubricating oils or plastics. The analogy works well, because there's lots of things you can do with data, just as there's lots of things you can do with petroleum products.
Micah Sifry: Right, but just to be clear, the people who were saying data is the new oil were not themselves bragging about how much money you can make from surveillance capitalism.
Jerry Michalski: Well, that's not what you lead with, right?
Micah Sifry: They would probably say they were leading with this concept that as we move from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age, as power moves up into the cloud, that he or she who had the most data, about the most people, would in effect be sitting on top of these great new resources that could be converted into things of value. And I think there was meant to be a silver lining to this: If we use data in the right way, it can actually make us smarter collectively, not just richer personally.
Jerry Michalski: The best thing we could think of is how to use data well to solve the world's problems, which I'm completely into. The problem is when you start to draw the analogy to oil, which reminds me of Jerry Mander’s page about cars in the book In the Absence of the Sacred, where he asks, as a thought experiment, what if we had known ahead of time all that would happen because we decided to run cars on internal combustion engines and oil? That we would pave over our cities, we would pollute the air, we would fight wars over the natural resources, all those things… Would we have allowed the car to move forward?
We're at this moment where we see that data is going to be huge. An important piece of what will take us down one road versus the other is how we try to govern these new oceans of data, right? Efforts to manage data for privacy like HIPAA and GDPR are complicated, difficult, bureaucratic, not commons-enhancing. So I’m not saying, let's just turn this over to the agencies that know how to manage privacy and let them write new regulations.
Micah Sifry: Were you able to wave a magic wand and change the paradigm, what would be some essential moves to enable us to share in the value of rich data? The metaphor of soil as this shared resource that we all benefit from doesn't immediately map intuitively to this abstract thing that we think of as data. At least not compared to the stuff I get my hands dirty with my garden (pictured in today’s email).
Jerry Michalski: If we go back to real soil, I've got a thought in my brain about my insights about soil and food.
One day I realized I had a bunch of stuff about mushrooms and about regenerative agriculture and perennials, and so forth and I connected them at this note here: The Wood Wide Web, sustainable agriculture, etc. In healthy agriculture, if you focus on soil health, a lot of the other elements of the ecosystem actually work because you will make choices for the system around all the different systems--the water system and so forth--that lead to soil fertility.
Also, thinking metaphorically, unhealthy data is data you can't trust. So one of the aspects of healthy data is the reliability of a datum right? We don't focus on that much right now. For example, Russia has attacked Ukraine, and there's a whole bunch of data pouring out of that conflict, including a bunch of videos that purport to be firsthand videos of conflict and we don't have a good way to say which ones are real. There's no digital notary that somebody with a phone can send their video to that says, ‘Yep, I will attest that this was taken at these geocoordinates and that this person is real.”
There are a lot of implications for data as the new soil. There's also this big complication: unlike soil and atoms, once data is out there, it can live forever and it's very hard to expunge. Twenty years ago, Acxiom was one of my favorite targets because it was busy hoovering up all the data and cross-referencing and selling off all the insights they had. Actually deleting data is a fiction: You can ask any data aggregator to obliterate data, but sorry, they're running backups every week, and they're not somehow magically going to go into their archives and scrub all of that, right? So our data is on the loose.
Micah Sifry: Inevitably, yes, data is like plutonium. It has a half-life of thousands of years. Never goes away.
Jerry Michalski: Which is this article by Jim Balsillie.
Micah Sifry: Oh my goodness, it’s in your brain.
Jerry Michalski: Yes, somebody has actually written this article for you. Data is amazing and powerful, but dangerous when it spreads. It’s difficult to clean up and can have serious consequences when improperly used.
Micah Sifry: I was also thinking of the latest example of facial recognition tech and how it is fast outstripping any regulatory or even ethical framework that we might have for its use. With PimEyes, for a fairly small fee, you can feed in a picture of yourself, and then see everywhere that your face has ever appeared online. It's supposedly incredibly accurate. And we're currently just trusting the founder to make sure that it isn't being misused. I'm sure that's gonna work out well.
Jerry Michalski: Exactly. Yeah. What could possibly go wrong with that? Agreed.
Micah Sifry: So to keep data from being like plutonium, it seems to me to make it work like soil, we may need artificial guardrails set up to actually hinder the use of data?
Jerry Michalski: There are two dramatically different ways of looking at this one. One is how do we prevent bad actors from using our data in bad ways? Which means how do we prevent the data from leaking? How do we lock down the data? The other side is, if we actually thought of a data layer as healthy soil, what are all the positive things that would lead to the goal of preventing damage? Unfortunately, trying to prevent leakage or misuse cripples our ability to even spend time thinking about the upsides. I rely on people like Evan Greer (of Fight for the Future) and a bunch of other privacy and data activists to keep up the good fight on that front. But I'm really most interested in what it could mean if I save an insight out into this world, in some virtual space above Wikipedia and The Google, in some scaffolding where it's findable by other people who I trust or don't trust, who might then compare notes with me so we might then build up some ideas that lead to policy platforms that are well articulated and include evidence?
Why can't we share what we know on this larger scale? And wouldn't that be really interesting as a new form of soil? When you plow healthy soil, you tear it up, you kill all the little critters that are in the soil, you tear up the root systems, you destroy a lot of the health of soil merely by tilling. So one of the things in soil fertility is: don't turn over the damned soil. Another one is: keep it protected so the water doesn't evaporate. So, always have a cover crop or something on top of the soil. Since there are a bunch of simple rules about protecting soil, what's the equivalent here? And then how do we actually start building a place where we can share what we know with trusted people and then compare notes with untrusted people? I think that's really exciting territory.
“The superconductivity of ideas now is insane. …Part of our problem, however, is that there's zero marginal cost to all this communication.”
Micah Sifry: Yes, that is a perfect segue to part two of this conversation, which is your thinking about the “betterverse.” Instead of the metaverse as being envisioned and constructed by people like Mark Zuckerberg as a place for watching movies together and buying digital trinkets. The betterverse would be some kind of layer or protocol that enables people sharing their knowledge with others in ways that accrete up to collective knowledge.
Have you read the book, The Quiet Before by Gal Beckerman? What’s beautiful about that book is how he teases out a series of moments in history when networks of people found ways to come together to develop new ideas. The scientists in early Renaissance Europe who wrote letters to each other, for example. He describes how one of them organized an effort to collect observational data on the night of the same lunar eclipse and how that was then used to basically calculate a more accurate map of the world. Or the Chartists in England in the 1840s, who invented the mass petition as a way to demand that Parliament hear their cry for universal suffrage. So every time it's a version of ways that the written word gets collectivized. We fast forward to the more recent years where the revolution in Tahrir Square happens as a result of the ability to rapidly come together, but not necessarily the ability to act wisely. I know you've thought about all of these things. What’s missing and what are you trying to inject into the mix in terms of making it much easier for us to share and build collective knowledge?
Jerry Michalski: I read somewhere ages ago that Leibniz, who was the co-inventor of calculus along with Newton, might have corresponded with 600 people across Europe during his lifetime. I exchange email with 600 people in a week; it's insane. And he had to put quill to parchment, and then hope the letter got to the other side, and then wait a few months. And so of course, those conversations are probably a little more thoughtful than your average email.
The superconductivity of ideas now is insane. It's wonderful and it has zero marginal cost to us. Even though there are datacenter costs to the earth, individually, we perceive zero marginal cost to all this communication. Part of our problem, however, is that there's zero marginal cost to all this communication. Take the Arab Spring, which starts with people in Tunisia protesting that the price of wheat has gone way up, which goes back to Ukraine and the crop crisis, ironically. All of a sudden, regimes across northern Africa tumble, but there's nothing to replace them. Many of these societies were sort of like the former East Germany where there were spies, there was a lot of control by the ruling class. So it becomes incredibly difficult for new distributed small groups to actually step up and take over.
So one of the many problems here is that there is not a new story for people. Neither a new story nor a new infrastructure to carry the day when moments arise where we could try to reinvent our world, as in the Arab Spring or Occupy. So what we wind up doing is bitching and moaning a lot and not having answers for what to do if you manage to grab the reins of power. I'm thinking here of George Monbiot’s talk in 2019 on “a new political story that could change everything” where he describes how after World War II, we used to live by [John Maynard] Keynes’s story. Then he goes into the details of how that story got replaced by the neoliberal story. Alas, the Democrats bought the neoliberal story. Part of the problem with Clinton et al, is that they were faithful to neoliberal thinking, and they left everybody behind.
The problem is that we are now at a moment of transition where the social contract is being renegotiated involuntarily, and we don't know what will replace neoliberalism. Monbiot offers what he calls the restoration story, which I like, but he doesn't offer a plan for what that means. One big reason to have a betterverse which is actually about the serious issues we face as a society is to negotiate what blend of ingredients will help us improve the world. Is it holacracy and distributed finance plus simple group processes, folding in indigenous ways of solving problems? One hundred years from now, we're going to be in a pretty different sort of governance regime. We'll either have managed to destroy ourselves, which is the default course that we're on right now, or we'll figure out some interesting distributed method where different groups connect to what I call nations of choice.
An easy way to imagine nations of choice is Burning Man. Burning Man is a gift economy that we think of as this funny little art experiment in the middle of the desert. But Burning Man could be turned into an alternative way of living together on the planet. And as we automate away work and move toward even conservatives talking about basic income guarantees, we can start to see that we're going to need some new ways of organizing and sharing value. Or things are going to be really really crappy for a lot of humans--far worse than they are today.
So, for me, this betterverse idea is the place where we can conduct some of these conversations, share research, share big questions, collect up into smaller communities of high trust and move these ideas forward, which then might attract other people to say, “Oh, wow, those Game B people. They've done a lot of good work on these topics over here. They speak for me. (Or Project Drawdown, or Doughnut Economics, or...) Right? And then by the way, you can easily imagine a representative from Game B going to government officials and saying, “these 626,234 people will vote exactly as I'm telling you right now.” We’ll shift from lobbying to the distributed, slow building of credibility as we actually work to improve society together.
Micah Sifry: Now, you've also talked to me about the idea that some of this may be facilitated by a different use of technology than the way we currently organize. Google actually isn't doing a very good job of taking us to the answers that we need, nor are we anywhere else in the system aggregating our shared discoveries. Yes, the scientific community in the face of COVID very rapidly moved toward the pre publication, posting of papers, even before they were formally reviewed and accepted, because it was too important. We had to collaborate fast and allow for some messiness. Here, go ahead, read what I've already discovered, but use it with caution. So, we do have some of these practices sort of happening in some corners of the knowledge production world, but have you thought about some of the actual protocols or practices that would just naturally sort of grease the wheels for this?
Jerry Michalski: Yeah. I think the state of the art these days for sharing good ideas is linky prose. In old-school essays, thoughts are carefully organized into an argument. But then you can carefully enhance that essay with pointers to evidence, or sometimes contrarian arguments or to people who are already working on these projects--that’s linky text within an essay, and I don't think it gets much better than that.
I love Google. I use Google all the time and am way too deep into Google's ecosystem. I have a Pixel phone in front of me. I rely entirely on Google Docs and the Google cluster of tools. Remarkably, I pay little money to Google for all these kinds of things. And I trust their angle on advertising more than I probably should, but far more than I trust Facebook on the same exact topic. Anyway, the problem is that if something doesn't get PageRank, or Google juice, it fades from Google's memory. So when you search for something, you find your Google results, which is fine and dandy--I'm thrilled this is available to humanity at this point.
But a lot of important things fall off Google search that are really important to remember. And one of my beefs is that we don't have people's curated memory over time to dive into and delve into and learn from and share and then connect together. Right? And the act of connecting these things together into a point of view of some sort is really, really important. And I don't mean that it's the right point of view. You know, it might be contrasted with the opposing point of view from a different group. But man, if they do a good job of expressing their point of view and pointing to evidence, then we can have a different level of discussion.
Now, I'm no information architect, but I know that this has a lot to do with APIs, protocols and convincing all sorts of software developers and startups to write toward the commons. Then there's a second layer of convincing, which is convincing individuals like you and me and others to write in public and to think in public and to share our notes. There's a note taking method called Zettelkasten that has a bunch of fans. But most of their notetaking is private to them. They're using this cool new note taking and linking technique to create private little databases. I want to talk them into sharing those databases out. And then learning who else is better than they are at a particular domain and how do we federate or syndicate what we know?
There's a thing called liquid democracy that says, what if we each could proxy our votes? For example, I could proxy my vote over to David Reed, who could speak for me on all issues about radio spectrum and telecommunications policy. I trust him implicitly, he's a genius on those things. And if he's publishing openly what he thinks and why he's voting this way, or that way, he speaks for me. Lather, rinse, repeat at scale, and suddenly we have a platform that doesn't rely on elections every two or four years, but instead is an ongoing conversation about how we fix problems in the world. That’s a world I’d like to help build.
If this Betterverse of discussing actual issues that matter works, it trickles back up into journalism, science, education, governance, and elections, because then people in each of these fields are motivated to figure out how to show their work, how to solve things together. So there's an opportunity here to actually dramatically change how media works and how each of these institutions function.
Odds and Ends
—Civic tech nerd Dan Hon has feelings about Democrats.org, the DNC’s website.
—“What the fuck is the D.N.C. doing? I’m on their listserv and I haven’t gotten a fucking thing, have you? Every woman I’ve seen on social media that’s so mad, I’ve seen no link to, hey, here’s where you vote. If this was the G.O.P. side, that whole apparatus would be mobilized. From the Koch brothers to the N.R.A. to big oil, they would be efficiently mobilizing their base right now.” Asked what they expected to see from fellow Democrats, the lobbyist responded, “I think we’re going to see a lot of hashtags, and some rallies, and a lot of useless shit.” That’s an unnamed Democratic lobbyist speaking to Julia Ioffe in the wake of the Dobbs decision.
—Here’s a “friend link” to my latest on Medium, explaining why I fear the Knight Foundation has betrayed its mission by sponsoring a forum featuring Fox News white nationalist Tucker Carlson, along with forprofit media startup Semafor.
—I’m late to this but still, if you’re a creative professional it hits home.