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Blockchain as non-financial currency: Reengineering our data consumption

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Professor Olinga Taeed PhD FIoD, Director, Centre of Citizenship, Enterprise and Governance and Council Member and Expert Advisor, Chinese Ministry of Commerce ‘China E-Commerce Blockchain Committee’ takes a deep dive into the trouble  data hoarding and how blockchain might help. 

This personal data thing, it’s just not working. Some claim that corporates want our data so they can sell stuff to us and governments want our data to control us. But companies retort that if you expect your commercial product to be free, and help create their jobs, economy and services to society, they must be allowed to get to know you to help (others) target you better.

Like Google and their gmail, Facebook and their WhatsApp, bankers will tell you that free banking forced them to develop other more convoluted instruments that eventually ruined the world in 2008. Similarly, Sovereign States have a responsibility to protect their population and encourage positive social structures – so they see no problem with tracking our movements, rewarding good behaviours and identifying bad actors.

Too much of a good thing?

We have become obsessed with our personal data which is in the middle of this battleground but let’s face it, GDPR has failed – nothing has changed except we inanely press more cookie policy buttons and new T&C’s daily. We are happy to be in a selfless open and more sharing society, believe in open data, open source, open banking.

Things are set to become even more selfcentric - in blockchain we want to track your data to reward ourselves and to withhold our data if we’re not. Last month, I sat in Shanghai whilst an entrepreneur pitched me with a system to token reward contributors of their medical data to resolve long term illness. There are those for, and against this kind of data sharing and waiver of privacy, but the question may be are we becoming, or should we become, possessive with our data and isn’t it misaligned to the open sharing world we are trying to create?

Data as an intangible asset

I think the issue is that we mistakenly think of data as a tangible hard asset like money, gold, land … things we can lose and others gain. Actually it’s not – data shows all the hallmarks of an intangible asset, a subject which I have studied for over a decade. Like all intangible non-financial assets, data value is dependent on the holder; you can’t spend it at Starbucks but it can be invaluable in the hands of others.  And like other intagiables, love, happiness and hope, it is infinitesimally replenishable - you create more data tomorrow – you haven’t lost the asset by giving it.  We are happy to share with others on social media all about us, our inner beliefs, our core values, and yet, many get upset that companies, governments, and others use it to understand or manipulate more efficiently.

The currency of non-financial value

If the dollar is the currency of financial value, I have wanted to know what is the currency of non-financial value. For years I promoted sentiment as the new currency of the millennium, but in reality it has become impossible with current technology to come to a consensus on how to measure it. And if you can’t measure, you can’t bill it - so all attempts to improve the world based on impact have hitherto failed.

Data, however, is indeed universally measurable and thus a much better proxy to our intentions. What if we dispense with the misnomer that we can hold back the personal data ocean, and focus on the data transaction. I would be happy for my data to be used by governments, by corporates, by anyone if in exchange they agree to donate their upside (profits, tax, revenues, whatever) to civil society and undertake not to harm anyone in the process, including myself. To do this we would need an immutable ledger to track the use of our data – to tokenise not for personal gain but for societal gain. If you don’t want to surrender your information (which you cannot use in any case) then that is also fine … but don’t expect to receive the upside from the public and private interventions. Only blockchain can do this and provide the transparency for challenges.

Where does blockchain come in?

So in straight forward terms, what am I saying? Here is my data, please use it to get to know me. Because I share it doesn't mean I've lost it – I have new data tomorrow representing the new me. It does not belong to me, I give my IP to you freely to make the world better. Yes you made money by knowing me, or knowing how to market to and target me, and I hope this feeds back through and adds to society.

That is why data and blockchain are a perfect mixture. It's a trustless system where we can share our data, transparently track it, contributing to a decentralized collective responsibility to be distributed to whoever needs it.

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