Time to leave for Berghain. Sobering tales on Identity Hygiene

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Unit Festival – Unicorns in Tech – Berlin, 8. May 2015

This talk is about #identity. It’s about what happened  to a friend trying to detox. It’s about how we perceive ourselves. It’s about the future of our data. It’s about our social media habits.

And let me tell you upfront.

You have a smiling picture on your social profile.

And after reading this, you will look at that image again with new eyes.

Now I have given a similar talk to a similar audience before. The Unit Festival in fact is not the only occasion that there has been for LGBTQI techies to come together and share ideas.

It was a very small group, a very small meet up part of a bigger conference and I was coming from a place of idealism and this idealism is perfectly represented by the Genderbread person from It’s Pronounced Metrosexual.

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I was thinking about gender and identity as something that has a lot of nuances, and I was pretty pissed off at the Internet because it provided me with these terrible forms where I have to choose if I was male or female and that was it. It gave me only gender binary options.

And I was trying to convince some fellow LGBTQI techies that instead gender is a complex element that it’s not made of 2 single points, but is rather made of possibilities on a line, possibilities that are fluid and that can change overtime. And I was trying to tell them that the forms that we have on the Internet that gender as male and female need to be changed.

I was very inspired, I was very passionate about it, I was talking with my heart and they responded very simply that making that form more complex, by making gender for instance a free text where you can write whatever you want, would hurt the conversion rate.

At that time I really wasn’t ready to hear that, but now I’m ready to tell you that in fact coming from a place of idealism, and hope for a better world was… not the right place to be coming from. Because our world runs by the conversion rate.

At this same conference a few hours ago there was a talk about optimizing your Facebook presence and this is what we’re doing in this world, we are constantly tweaking and working on – for instance – our social profiles.

I have a question, who of you has a social profile? There’s nobody that doesn’t have one, at least in this room.

Let me ask a second question if you allow me. Who of you has their own picture on any of these profiles? Everybody. Cool!

Third question. Who of you is smiling on that picture? Let’s say three quarters… let’s say over the majority.

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Why do we do that? Why do we look like stock photographs on our social profiles? What are we trying to achieve?

I don’t want to insult you. So let’s talk about me. I have everything geared towards work so my Twitter, my Facebook persona is always saying witty things, really smart things I’m always in cool places where smart people, people smarter than me are speaking and I’m taking notes and I’m reading really long blog posts and articles and I’m sharing the most smart, the ones that make me look – at least I think – that make me look better and I have a smiling picture in my profile.

And I am curating this social presence, and what I’m doing and I think you also doing it, we’re all caring very much about what it says about us. It’s a big chunk of our identity especially for the people that don’t know us. They’re gonna check us out there so we take the time to choose the profile picture.  We always reflect and ask what does this thing that I’m sharing say about me? Where am I in this post? Where am I in this picture of the kittens? Where am I in this protest? Where am I in this petition? How does that define me?

We are all curating our social presence in different ways and in different directions. There’s the party profile: always drinking always raising the glasses.  There’s the serious profile, there is a professional profile, there’s people that have two different profiles, there’s people that use Facebook like Grindr, the people that use Grindr like Facebook, there’s all sorts.

But what we’re doing is that we’re just scratching the surface, and to exemplify this I’m going to use a classic: the iceberg slide.

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Right now we are some happy unicorn penguins (the conference is promoted by the LGBT group Unicorns in Tech) and we are dancing on the tip of the iceberg in and we’re there curating a little content and making sure that our identity matches what we really think about ourselves. But actually the real action is happening below the water. Where we are not seeing it. And what I wanna talk to you about today it’s what’s happening about our identity that we don’t curate, that we probably still don’t care enough about.

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The top part is the curated data, it’s soft data, it’s data that is opinion, it’s a photograph that you choose to take, and then choose to upload or not. The part below the water, and it’s the majority of the data that it’s building our identity right now. This part is not static, it’s forward thinking: it’s building our future identity. It’s the hard data, it’s data that is actually really true, it’s my purchases. You know, when I purchased something and I pay a certain amount, that is a hard fact, my location that has been tracked by my mobile device, that is hard data.

We are buying and wearing devices that track our movements, and our body is producing hard data. All of this, we can’t curate. All of this is the subject of a change in identity that is happening right now.

Let’s make some examples. Let’s go to the title of this talk, time to leave for Berghain. Now, there’s a very dear friend of mine that kinda fell into a habit that he wanted to kick, and this habit involved going to Berghain (it’s considered the best club in the world, I wouldn’t disagree) and he decided to detox. It was a very serious moments for him because you know, there are activities that can take a toll if you know what I mean. He was making an effort, he was on his first week of detox. He wasn’t partying, he didn’t go out. It was a Sunday, he was chilling, relaxing and his phone, his phone has Google now, Google now is a fantastic service that mines your data and it helps you live your life.

It helps you live your day by collecting data about you and precisely at 3 p.m. precisely on the first Sunday of his detox, his phone buzzed in his pocket and said “Time to leave Berghain”.

Now, this is what this technology is meant to do, this is not a malfunction, this is not a bug, it’s a feature. When you’re trying to detox, your phone that has learned about your behavior, that has learned about your identity is reminding you who you are. And this is very useful when you are someone foreign, if you are a Google Now user you gonna have realized that whenever you travel abroad, Google now recognizes where is it you are staying and when it’s 3am and you are drunk and you wanna go home, Google now tells you the way the path, the exact path until you  reach your Airbnb and it does so automatically. You never input the data, so it’s extremely convenient until it’s shaping your behavior, it’s shaping your identity so much that even though you don’t wanna be tempted to go to Berghain, you were trying to do your detox, it then reminds you: time to go back to your clubbing habits.

It’s not that Google is particularly evil. A little less than four years ago Nike launched the FuelBand and I was there when they launched it, they made this huge temporary space in Austin, it what’s all-black, it was like the dimension of the soccer field, inside there were like only five people and there was a queue outside of hundreds and you had this Nike clad person that was coming to you and inviting you. They showed you the Nike Fuelband and they personalized it for you so that would fit your wrist perfectly, and the same day Nike announced: developers we are going to give you an API access so that you will be able to access all your data. So buy a Nike FuelBand today and from tomorrow you gonna be able to hack it and get all the data out.

Well, Nike never held that promise and for a reason, they’re really happy when we still buy some nice shoes, but they are transitioning towards being a software company and they’re producing the cash flow with shoes, but actually their platform is our habits and our data, and for no reason will they ever open up the data of their wearable devices. And this is true for Fitbit and all of these device producers. What they’re doing is: they’re creating silos and in the silos they are making a repository of our data and then they’re giving us are a small device or an app inside our phones, and with this app we can have a little glimpse of what’s happening to that data. But for instance Nike will tell you if you are reaching the green, if you’re in line with your objectives but they’re not gonna tell you more details. They won’t let you classify your own activities. They will curate the data for you, they will use an algorithm, take the silo with all your data here and then extract what’s useful in terms of your future behavior, like buying a new pair of shoes.

Now, it’s not like Google and Nike are particularly evil because this is happening all over the world and I finally get to mention my favorite company: Apple.

Apple has an integrated system that no other company has. It is a full-blown stack and I’ll come to this concept in a second, and most recently in iOS 8 they launched health kit. Health kit is an interface for your health data, for your body data, and it allows you to see this data, to share it for instance with the medical world. It is a pretty powerful  system and integrates with all sorts of devices and Apple wants to be the hub of your medical identity and your biological hard data coming from your body

Chris Dancy is a researcher, who is probably the most connected man on the planet, has all the possible sensors, his car has sensors, his house has all the sensors, and he does a lot of research on identity.

He coined this phrase that will probably look good on your twitter feed that is “health kit is the new selfie” because you look at yourself inside the phone through your activities. You see yourself projected in what you do, and so in this sense, it is kind of a selfie, it’s kind of a picture of yourself that it’s given back to you. But Apple did something more, they just recently they launched the Apple watch.

Everybody’s thinking Apple is entering the watchmaking business and they are also saying “we are entering the watchmaking business”, using phrases like “we got lessons from the Swiss to know how to build watches and we did something better” and then they start talking about the latest polymer that they created, that how the glass is curved…

If you take an Apple Watch on the face there’s this beautiful thing. Like you can draw a heart on it and your partner receives the heart. I love that, I need to admit: I’d love to get an Apple Watch.

But on the back there are sensors, so actually you’re gonna pay up to $12,000 for the gold version to get a fancy health kit sensor and so going back to Chris Dancy, if healthkit if the new selfie, the Apple Watch is the new selfie stick.

This is not happening just for these companies 3 companies we just talked about.

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These companies are what Bruce Sterling calls The Stacks. Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer, a journalist, and a futurist. He defines The Stacks as these companies like Microsoft, Apple, Amazon that are disrupting business in a brand new way, by creating an equally aligned system of operating systems, of cloud-based services, of stores where you can buy stuff, and devices that track our data, and they have the sole intention of bringing us into their own silo, and they’re gonna make it so easy because no, we don’t wanna pay one Euro for Whatsapp, no no that’s outrageous!

Because then we would be the customers of Whatsapp. We want to have it for free and then give away our identity. We don’t want to pay for Facebook. We want to be advertised because it’s so convenient to have Facebook for free. We are not going to pay for email, we want Gmail completely free because then our data is getting mined, and then we get invited to go to Berghain when you’re trying to detox.

That’s what happens today, it doesn’t have to be that way. We have the technologies today to solve all these problems. Instead of the silo that comes from one of these stacks, we have personal clouds. Personal clouds are another technology that is working already today, we have the open protocols, we have the vendors, we have the systems… it’s still complicated to setup but it’s there.

So we have one way to store our data, at the same time we have this incredible thing, that the computation on mobile devices is incredibly powerful today so we have the storage from the personal clouds and  we can have the computation to take out meaningful stuff. Stuff that is going to be useful for us to live better lives, so we don’t have to give up the practicality of Google now. We can just rebuild it with our own systems.

The other thing our devices are capable of is to communicate. Mobile devices have really powerful chips to communicate, and we using them to communicate with the network. Let’s say with  Vodafone for instance, or Telecom. But the functionality we’re not using is that these devices can create a mesh network, so we could create a network for this conference that is working only at this time, where we share all our data completely freely, and then shut it down when the conference ends.

We could even create a network that works similarly to Snapchat, if you’re familiar with that, where you send a message and then after the message is seen it self destructs. So you could share a hundred percent of your identity in a network that has new rules, and these rules are for instance that nobody can store anything. So if you’re there in the moment, you can capture it, but if you were not there, if you were not connected to that network in that instant, you will never have access to that data.

But this poses a problem, and that problem is accountability. How do we get  accountable identity data, because it’s great if you want to be anonymous, but what if you don’t want to. And we have a technology for that, it comes from Bitcoin, and it is the layer that is behind and below Bitcoin that’s called Blockchain. It is quite a complex mechanism, but you have to think that it’s a ledger that is made through algorithms that have been vetted, and it’s a transparent way of recording stuff.

Right now it’s reporting transactions connected to a currency, but it could connect and validate transactions about our identity.

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So I wanna leave you with a new keyword and it’s a keyword: Identity Hygiene

Make this concept your own. Think about it every time you are compiling a web form. And if you are a technologist whenever you are on the other side:  creating this infrastructure of forms and data collection, think about identity hygiene.  Think about how your data is gonna shape the identity of the people that there are going to be using your apps. Think about what you’re sharing, think about what you are storing, remember the iceberg, we are not looking at ninety percent of up the data that we are actually producing and it shapes our identity and you’re curating that irrelevant ten percent, try to focus on that.

Think about that when you are out there creating content, think about that when you are getting some new device, sometimes you don’t even need to get the device to get the data, to get tracked. You just need to rent a car2go, or use any of the online services to actually start building on that amount of data. That’s your homework: think about identity hygiene.

 

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