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Robots are companions, not carers

I trust that the TV and radio producers I deal with are adept at gauging public interest in the stories on which they ask me to comment. So I’m sure there must be great interest in the concept of the care robot, a topic on which I was asked to comment three times yesterday, ending with a debate with The Guardian’s Michele Hanson on BBC Ulster.

Michele and I were positioned slightly apart in our opinions, though perhaps not as far as it may have seemed to the listener. For while I think robots most definitely have a role to play in the care sector, I’m loathe to accept that they are in any way a suitable replacement for a human being.

Pepper, the robot being introduced to care, in a rather different setting

Love technology, respect people

Any reader of this blog will know that I love technology. It has been my obsession from near-birth. But I also feel we are too appreciative of our own brilliance when compared to the spectacular complexity of our own bodies. We can’t yet understand nearly half of what we our bodies and minds can do, let alone replicate it. Rarely are those uniquely human characteristics more important than in a caring environment.

For this reason we are a long way from having a robot that can ‘care’, however rapid the rate of technological progress. The revolution we require is not one of technology but of economics and social policy, properly valuing care work and creating a system to reward it appropriately. It’s hard to see how this will be achieved without radical political intervention in the economic system, something that might be decades away.

What fits today’s system is an answer based on capital investment in technologies that can — if only in part — offset the lack of proper investment in humans in a care setting.

This is where Michele and I differ. We agree that robots can’t care. But we disagree about whether robots can be useful companions.

Plug-in pets

I am not a pet person. Animals make me sneeze. Dogs scare me. And frankly it’s hard enough tidying up after myself and my kids, let alone adding an even less self-controlled creature into the mix.

But I get it. I understand the appeal. I’ve seen the joy that animal companions bring to others. A joy that has been quantified by research. As the US Center for Disease Control, an organisation not prone to woo, puts it:

“Pets can decrease your: Blood pressure, Cholesterol levels, Triglyceride levels, feelings of loneliness…”

Now, what proportion of each of these benefits do you think is down to the innate capabilities of the animal? And what proportion is down to what happens in our heads through our interactions? The studies, though small so far, suggest that robot companions can offer the same benefits as living companions.

Robots may not yet be even as smart as our pets. But they can be much better adapted to the needs of those they are designed to interact with. For a start, they can speak, tell stories, show films, control lights and heating, and clean floors rather than dirty them.

Between these enhanced capabilities and our own propensity to anthropomorphise everything around us, it seems obvious to me that robot companions can be a useful supplement to human interaction.

Companionship is not care

This though, is the limit of their capabilities with today’s technology. Robots cannot replace humans in a care setting and nor should we accept that as a proposition. We have a major under-employment problem amongst the young, an ageing population and historical undervaluation of care work: one solution could hit the trifecta.

If and when these problems are solved though, robots will remain useful and valid additional companions.

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How (and why) to be an applied futurist

Futurism is not an innate skill. It is a process that can be taught and learned.

Most futurists, or futurologists, have made this a career out of a fascination with the future. And, because they have the confidence to tell the world that they are taking this, so far, unusual path.

But there’s a problem with this: I think we need many more futurists than we have. Put simply, the world is changing faster now. (You can read a more nuanced version of this argument here).

Three challenges of a faster world

In a faster-changing world, organisations need three things to succeed.

  1. To see what’s coming, early enough to act
  2. To respond at speed, translating foresight into action
  3. To be inherently agile, designed for this rapid response

The people who provide these capabilities to organisations are applied futurists.

Futurism is central to sustainable success

Futurism can no longer be an occasional exercise, dreaming about a distant tomorrow. It has to be a constant and vital part of management and operations for any organisation with an expectation of sustainable success.

For that to become a reality, we need may more people trained in the tools of futurism and equipped to deliver them, either inside their own organisations or for others.

This has become my mission in the last few years: to build an army of applied futurists capable of creating real change.

(Note the addition of the word ‘applied’ to ‘futurist’. There is a technical meaning to this word, but its real importance is that it signifies that this is about making change today, not tomorrow. That it is about reality, not fantasy.)

The Mission

#How do I go about fulfilling this mission? Two ways.

Firstly, I created the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit, a set of answers to the three things organisations need. This is a set of step-by-step instructions on how to see the future, how to share that vision, and how to build an agile organisation.

Secondly, I’ve started teaching these tools, in partnership with the University of Salford.

For anyone who wants to be an applied futurist, whether to aid their own organisation, advance their career, or deliver new services to the clients, there are now clear steps to take.

Will you take them?

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Convergence is not the (only) future of gaming

Hideo Kojima is a gaming legend. His plans to integrate gaming, film, music and more, formed the basis of a quick interview I gave this morning on the sofa at BBC Breakfast.

It’s not a new idea that these different media might converge. In some ways it is happening already: look at the integration across the Marvel Universe where comic stories weave in and out of games, TV shows and films. Or how film promotion now starts with experiential games seeded around the internet. People have long considered ways to make the cinema experience interactive — a group ‘choose your own adventure’. And the natural conclusion of high-end games is total immersion in an experience of cinematic reality via VR.

But I don’t think this is what Kojima is suggesting. Rather, what I interpret from his few words, is that a single, multi-threaded narrative might be explored through multiple forms of media combined in a single entertainment package.

This makes a lot of sense with the convergence of entertainment delivery on a small number of devices: phones, tablets and streaming boxes. With some caveats, and the support of some high-end servers in the background, these devices are capable of delivering anything from a simple page of text to a rich VR experience.

Why not utilise this breadth of capability to engage us in many different ways? It’s certainly one answer. But I don’t think this is the biggest opportunity in the future of gaming.

The largest single segment of the gaming market, following years of rapid growth, is mobile gaming. Within that, the largest phenomenon in recent years is Pokemon Go. Though limited, I think this AR experience points to what will be the most popular and pervasive form of gaming.

Lessons for tomorrow

Imagine real life, gamified through the overlay of the physical world with digital sights and sounds. Virtual places, people, objects and creatures that you can interact with as though they were real. We’ve acclimatised to people speaking to themselves on wireless headsets. People running around the streets chasing Pokemon seemed to generate a lot more smiles and good will than criticism and questioning. I think we’ll adapt to people playing in the streets in their own virtual world — eventually.

The revenue streams are certainly there to drive such an industry. Imagine an advert you have to interact with to win a game. Imagine that advert is a virtual character with a rounded virtual intelligence. This is a far cry from today’s billboards: this is hyper-targeted, totally personalised, and fully interactive.

Whether you like the sound of that or not, it’s coming.

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Agility, volatility and transparency

Two facts from the Today programme shocked me this morning. Both facts were about companies and their share prices. Both were about those prices falling dramatically. Both involved a lack of transparency on the part of the companies concerned, BT and Pearson.

In future, companies need to be more transparent to build trust with both customers and investors

My first thought was that the falls were particularly dramatic: 19% in the case of BT and 30% in the case of Pearson. I’m no stock market expert, but these seemed like extreme amounts to me. Digging around suggests these swings are large for such well-established, large organisations with a track record of stability. Large enough to make the news. But not unheard of.

My next question: were these swings evidence of a wider trend across the stock market towards greater volatility? It doesn’t appear so, as this Motley Fool analysis shows. I confess I was disappointed: this would be a nice evidence point for the increased frequency of change. But it seems rapid change is in the very nature of the stock market.

Transparency

So what caused such dramatic swings? This is where it gets really interesting. Both companies appear to have been penalised by the market for a lack of transparency.

In BT’s case, you could also argue it’s a lack of honesty. Years of apparent fraud in its Italian unit is going to cost the company £530m to address. This is bad enough, but the company initially estimated the cost at £145m. The markets were understandably spooked by the rise, as well as the slowdown in its core business.

Pearson was already under fire, by all accounts. The CEO gave an upbeat message to investors in November, only to have to reverse his position soon after. The damage was done not just by poor results but by the CEO over-selling and under-delivering on the company’s performance.

Performance

When explaining technology-driven change to people, I use five ‘vectors of change’. One of these I call ‘performance’, meaning that information flows faster now. This puts the onus on organisations to be able to analyse and act on information more quickly. But it also creates a demand for people to share information more openly. People want current, accurate answers on demand.

In BT’s case, the wrong answers were being given to people for a long time. And even when the issues were uncovered, the market was fed with intermittent, inaccurate information. You can’t know all the answers, all the time, but you have to wonder whether a running commentary on the state of the investigation would have been less damaging than a last minute warning. It would have demonstrated true transparency.

With Pearson it appears the company was failing to gather good information and analyse it properly. Otherwise the poor December would have come as less of a surprise. Note that disruptions to good information flow often happen inside the organisation: it’s amazing how much information can be changed by people trying to cover their own arse.

Lessons for Tomorrow

The takeaway from this, is that even if there isn’t greater volatility now, there is absolutely an appetite for greater transparency. Companies and their leaders need to be better at gathering, analysing and acting on inbound information, ensuring that its meaning doesn’t get corrupted as it flows through the organisation. As I’ve suggested before, artificial intelligences, at board level or below, may be employed to spot patterns that people may not.

Companies also need to accept that it’s time to be more open with the information they have. Some local councils have adopted the policy that everything should be shared unless there’s a really good reason to do otherwise. It might be wise for companies to consider something equally radical as they try to build trust with their customers and investors.

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Want to learn more about the five vectors of change? Get the Applied Futurist’s Manifesto from futurism-tools.com.

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Announcing Applied Futurism courses with Salford Professional Development

Since we launched the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit a year ago, we’ve consistently had one piece of feedback. People want more training on the tools. Today we’re launching that training in partnership with the University of Salford’s professional development team.

This one-day course will give participants a grounding in foresight and agile organisations — everything they need to know to apply the toolkit in their own organisations, or for their clients.


You can find more information about the course athttp://www.salford.ac.uk/onecpd/courses/futurism-for-business

Alternatively, contact Phil Whitman at OneCPD on 0161 295 3000.


More information in the press release below.

Announcing Applied Futurism courses with Salford Professional Development

You can now learn to be an applied futurist from the creator of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit, Tom Cheesewright. Working with the University of Salford’s professional development team, SPD, Tom is launching a one-day course designed to teach the basics of applied futurism, starting with how to see the future.

Applied futurism is a response to a business world that is changing ever faster. It is designed to help organisations see the big threats and opportunities early, and respond more quickly.

“Applied Futurism isn’t about science fiction, it’s about business reality. Whole industries are being wiped out because they didn’t see what was coming. Market leaders are missing massive opportunities,” said Cheesewright. “By teaching people the skills of applied futurism we hope to change the way that organisations operate, opening their eyes to what’s coming and giving them the tools to respond at speed.”

The course is aimed at leaders and managers within businesses, and at management and marketing consultants, accountants and lawyers, seeking new ways to help their clients.

“We are delighted to welcome Tom’s expertise to our executive education portfolio. His course will be invaluable for our learners as they shape their businesses for the future,” said Alice Birdwood, Director of Programmes, Salford Professional Development.

The first course, titled ‘Foresight and Agility: Futurism for Business’ will take place on the 3rd May 2017. Registration is open now with places priced at £545 plus VAT.

More information at http://www.salford.ac.uk/onecpd/courses/futurism-for-business

About The Applied Futurist’s Toolkit

The toolkit is a complete suite of simple processes and templates to help organisations build sustainable success in an uncertain world. It contains three primary tools:

  • Intersections: a foresight tool to help identify the greatest threats and opportunities
  • Arcs: a narrative planning tool to speed the development and communication of a response
  • Stratification: a framework for resilient, agile organisations

More information at futurism-tools.com

About Tom Cheesewright

Tom works with people and organisations around the world to help them to see, share and respond to a clearer vision of tomorrow. His clients include global tech firms, FTSE 100 enterprises, charities and government institutions, including BASF, KPMG, Nikon, Pladis, Sony Pictures, and Unilever.

Tom created the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit to assist him in his work and now licenses it to management and marketing consultancies, accountants and lawyers, to use with their own clients.

Tom is a frequent presence in the media, appearing weekly on air, on-line and in print explaining technology and tomorrow.

More information at tomcheesewright.com

About Salford Professional Development

Salford Professional Development helps delegates to achieve their career goals through lifelong learning and development programmes that draw upon over 100 years of educational excellence.

More information at http://www.salford.ac.uk/onecpd

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Beyond search: a lesson in lean

A great proposition means nothing if no-one ever sees it. It doesn’t mean much more if only a few people see it. Without sufficient numbers, you can’t draw valid conclusions about whether your proposition sucks or whether you’re just showing it to the wrong people.

It has taken me a long time to learn this lesson, despite a few good people trying to steer me in the right direction. This is a lesson of the latter end of the current internet age. The age when the global competition for eyeballs means that however beautifully you build it, there is very little chance that they will come. If you want your enterprise to rise above the spires of the downtown internet elite, you need to work really hard to make yourself visible.

Who wants a futurist?

This is both a general issue that I hear from start-ups, and a specific issue that I have faced in my own business. Growth is the hardest part of any new business, much more so than good ideas or even, I would argue, good products. In the past, my attempts to solve the problem of limited traffic have been focused on overhauling site structure and content, making technical SEO tweaks, or re-trying now-traditional forms of outreach: typically various forms of search-driven ads.

The results? Negligible. Sometimes, particularly when you’re doing something new, people just aren’t searching for the keywords that describe your business or services. Or even for the topics you write about, in the way that you write about them.

In my case, I could change the way I write to be more search-friendly, even targeting my posts at attractive phrases. But I don’t want to. I’m pursuing a course that is interesting to me, and I am confident will be valuable to others. Is that arrogant? Maybe. But maybe a little arrogance is useful in these situations.

Social reach

The good news for those afflicted with arrogance and no audience, is that there is an alternative now to search. As Wakelet proclaimed across taxi-cabs, billboards and t-shirts, ‘the humans are coming’. In reality, the humans have always been there. They lost a little prominence in the rise of the robots, the search and social algorithms powering Google and Facebook. But human powers of discovery,

We’ve proven this to ourselves recently when moving The Loadout, our reviews blog on ‘tech for tomorrow’s professional’ to Medium. Yes, Medium is probably more attractive from a search point of view than our own site. But the 7x increase in traffic that our posts are seeing — admittedly from a low base — is coming primarily from the human recommendations built into Medium, rather than search.

Now the time has come to move our main blog, this one, over to Medium, a process we’ll be starting shortly. Medium has looked a little shaky in the light of recent announcements, but it looks to be the best place to continue the process of building awareness of applied futurism.

Medium is a place for writing, not for promotional websites, so we’ll be dividing the pages of the Book of the Future website between two new sites. Futurism-Tools.com is where we will continue to host and promote the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit, as well as some new professional development services we’ll be announcing shortly. Consulting, speaking, media and content work has always really been about me, not the wider brand, so that moves to TomCheesewright.com.

Rethink your funnel

If like me, you’re trying to sell a product based on a new idea, I think there’s a strong argument to refocus effort and investment away from the conversion process and onto any platform that at least starts a conversation. This is not a new idea, but it’s one that hasn’t penetrated far past start-up land. And even for people like me, so exposed to the start-up mindset, it’s one that is hard to truly get to grips with.

Part of this means putting your effort into building awareness and understanding amongst a human audience, before you begin to focus on the algorithms that might bring greater scale.

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What’s happening? Everything

I’m reading, rather later than I intended, Carlo Rovelli’s excellent Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. In the lesson on particles, he points out that we live in, “a world of happenings, not of things.” This is a reference to the constant fluctuations in the most fundamental building blocks of reality. Even the things we consider solid, static, fixed, are really the product of lively and ongoing sub-atomic actions and interactions.

This is a far cry from the Newtonian world where objects would be at rest until acted upon. This is still an entirely valid approximation for beings of our scale, but we now know it doesn’t explain our reality.

Many commutes

There’s a parallel in our lived experience to this transition in the theories. Our lives too, are now less dependent on, or defined by, fixed places. Instead, they are defined by a constant series of interactions. And the infrastructure of our world isn’t necessarily equipped for this.

The working week used to be daily bounce between two locations. I and many others now circulate rather than oscillate, travelling from interaction to interaction. My experiences just yesterday highlights how poorly public transport supports this sort of behaviour: I spent over £40 and nearly three hours covering less than 24 miles, resorting to taxis when buses failed to show or when it became clear that the cost was essentially equivalent with two people travelling — certainly once the extra time loss is taken into account.

If you want to understand the argument for autonomous vehicles, it is right here. Automation is likely to slice further into the base of 9–5 work, leaving most commuters either travelling to shifts in service-industry jobs or jumping between high-value human interactions throughout the working day. In this scenario, we need mass transit where it makes sense and mobility on demand where it doesn’t.

Social butterflies

Outside of work too, our worlds are less defined by spaces and objects and more by experiences. Housing has moved more and more towards private rental, shorter-term arrangements than ownership or public lets. Objects have become less important as digital devices come to represent all media: books, films, music, news. Travel and live entertainment, by contrast, capture a growing proportion of our expenditure. Certainly amongst the young.

It has long been preached that we are defined by what we do, not what we own. But the shift in investment from stuff to experience seems to be making this real. Not driven by good will or charity, or even faith, but by a prevailing desire to live and experience the world when so much is filtered through the dulling lens of a smartphone screen.

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Why I Hated the iPhone, and What Amazon Can Learn from It

Ten years ago, Apple launched the iPhone. Not long after, Apple offered to loan me an iPhone for review. I hated it.

By this point, I was a few years into smartphone ownership. Not only that, I had helped to launch a smartphone that was pretty revolutionary in its own right.

Working on the marketing campaigns of a range of tech firms, I had attended the enormous Mobile World Congress conference for probably five or six consecutive years. One of our clients there provided the OS for a new smartphone from a Finnish start-up. This phone combined a full touch display, gyroscopic controls, and a browser that neatly handled full web pages. So many of the things that would go on to form part of the iPhone story.

This was 2003.

For all our efforts, the MyOrigo MyDevice, as it was called, flopped. It couldn’t get approval to run on enough mobile networks (a slow and painful process then) before the start-up ran out of cash. But it set my expectations for what a smartphone should be.

Without this device, I stuck with Handspring Treos. Bulky, but very effective business tools. There were even a few games for them thanks to their extensive Palm heritage.

Then the iPhone arrived.

By 2007 I was used to having two key features on my smartphones: 3G connectivity and the ability to add new apps. The iPhone I tested had some clear benefits. The touch screen was great, the software was slick and the design was slim. But no apps? No 3G? This seemed like a massive retrograde step. I was happy to stick with my chunky Treo, and later chose a SonyEricsson P1 over the iPhone because of the lack of these — to me, at least — core features.

Of course, eighteen months after the launch of the first iPhone, Apple had introduced the 3G version and the App Store, not just addressing my objections but crushing them. The App Store particularly has been revolutionary, giving anyone a simple, trustable experience in installing additional software.

Steve Jobs initial assertion of ‘desktop class’ apps may have been slightly overselling it. But from that point the iPhone became a serious productivity tool and entertainment device. And now the smartphone, that has always followed this initial template, is the primary platform for all our computing interactions.

What’s next?

It’s interesting to examine Amazon’s Echo/Alexa in the light of these objections. What needs to be added to take Echo from an interesting and clearly popular product, to the template for a class of device that may reach smartphone scale?

I think there are three problems to solve.

1. Connectivity

This time it’s not about data, it’s about interaction. The smart home is a very clunky construct at the moment. If Amazon can smooth the interactions with a wider range of devices, it would be welcome. This is not unconnected to…

2. Apps

Alexa seems to be reaching the scale where everyone will want/need to be part of its app/skill store. This would be hugely beneficial to users. Finally, there will be one interface to unite the disparate devices around the home. And the many services we have become used to accessing through distinct apps.

3. Discovery

Of course, none of these capabilities have any value unless people know they are there. How do you discover skills and interconnection options on a screenless device? It feels to me like there is an Alexa-initiated conversational element missing here. It would need to know who is in the room, not just that someone is there. But imagine a conversation like: “Hi Tom, I’ve detected a Fibaro home automation system on your network. Would you like me to connect?” That would be much more satisfying than the current app-driven controls.

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CES 2017: Exploding phones and disappearing tech

I made two predictions in the first year of this business. One, that we would see the smartphone being exploded into a range of body and home-wide accessories, reversing the trend of ever-greater integration. And two, that much of the technology around us would be increasingly integrated into our clothes, furniture, and other accessories, becoming less and less visible as discrete items. At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, I think we’re seeing evidence for both trends.

The Exploding Phone

Wearable tech is one obvious part of the exploding phone phenomenon, a phrase that took on a different meaning in the wake of Samsung’s 2016 travails. CES will see more watches, fitness trackers, and glasses, as well as the (for now) more outre options such as smart shoes and clothing. But it will also see more and more technology that started in phones — and is cheap because of the volume at which they are now produced — being integrated into the home. Totally wireless, battery-powered security cameras are one such innovation that has caught my eye. Battery life of up to two years is being claimed. These devices will continue to shrink, and the battery life will continue to grow until these devices are just about invisible and deeply integrated into our homes.

Why is this attractive? Right now the apps that support these cameras are of limited use. The cameras are so tiny that there’s limited deterrent value and if you live in a reasonably safe country, the chances are that 99.999% of the time they are only going to catch images of your pets or the waving trees in the background rather than a criminal. If you’re anything like me you end up more stressed about not being able to check the cameras because of your broadband being flaky than you would have been if you could just see nothing at all.

The real purpose of these ubiquitous cameras is not for security, though. Cameras are basically general purpose sensors. Backed by cheap, large-scale processing power they can recognise objects and people, and with microphones, sounds. Cameras everywhere presents a potential privacy nightmare, but it also offers the opportunity of a completely seamless interface to the digital world.

To use the comic trope of the internet fridge, the simplest way to know what’s in there and how long it has to last is not to scan everything in and out. It’s to put a high-resolution camera in there and let it spot and analyse everything.

Invisible Tech

Cameras are just part of the increasingly invisible world of tech. Truly wireless charging with a range of metres not millimetres is finally approaching commercial readiness. Those wireless cameras may never need their batteries replacing. It may not matter that your wearables only have a few hours battery life if they are automatically charged whenever you’re within a few feet of a power socket. Just don’t tell the electro-sensitives…

The latest TVs unveiled at the show are just a few millimetres thick, continuing the inevitable progression of screens from room-dominating CRTs to smart wallpaper. We’re only a few years from being able to print LEDs on a substrate that is paper-thin. With wireless power and high-bandwidth streaming, you won’t even need to connect it to a wire. Just paste it up and it will work.

Qualcomm’s latest smartphone platform, the engine at the heart of most high-end devices, is this year again smaller and more efficient. And its peers continue to become cheaper and more accessible. The fact that you can now buy a multi-core computer the size of a matchbox for a few pounds show just how far Moore’s law has taken us.

This is truly ubiquitous computing. And it is already barely visible.

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Identity duality: trust and preference

There has been an idea bouncing around tech circles for a while now. It’s about online identity and how we should return control of it to individuals.

Right now, a lot of our digital identity is controlled by large corporations who profit enormously from that control. For reasons of fairness, privacy, and control, there’s an argument from the EU and others to take control from these large corps and give it back to individuals.

When we’re talking about identity here we’re really talking about two different things, which are often confused in this debate. One is about trust: are you who you say you are. This is important for accessing everything from email and social networks to bank accounts and government services. A trusted online identity is a vital component for many digital services, with different levels of verification required for different tiers of service.

The other is about preference. Based on who you are, what you have viewed and consumed, and the behaviour of those in your network, what might you want to consume in the future. This is the information that is so valuable to brands and retailers, and hence to the social networks.
The argument for repatriating control of this preference information to individuals has been criticised for being somewhat ‘Ayn Rand-ian’. It’s characterised as being all about the preference information: “Put property rights on that data and allow it to be traded. Free markets solve everything etc.”

There would be a lot of merit to this criticism but for two things. Firstly, the trade in this preference data has already been commercialised. Right now the rightful owners of this data are excluded from the market, profiting from it not at all and without any meaningful control over its use. Free markets may not solve everything, but a free market is infinitely better than the current one which is rigged against the consumer.

Secondly, the financial capital bound up in preference data is inextricably linked to the social capital that creates the trust in our identity. The me that posts and shares is the same me that votes and banks, and the same me that shops and clicks. Separating the two across the myriad ways that we log in and out of payment engines, social networks, shopping sites and more is near impossible. The various thread may not form a totally coherent whole but they nonetheless represent a single, if fuzzy, me.

The argument that I should control this social aspect of my online identity has nothing to do with commercial gain. It’s a simple principle of human rights.

Personally, I think there’s a valid argument to me made that we should be the ones to profit from choosing to share our own preference data. But the real argument for repatriating identity to individuals is that we should have the right to control who we are and how we present ourselves, whatever the domain.

Tom Cheesewright