Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and a host of other big companies in today’s “data-driven economy” share one thing in common: they make a living from harvesting personal data. Some of this data is freely given, perhaps too freely. More than 1.3 billion people have donated some of their most valuable personal information to Facebook in return for the ability to “like” and “share” cat photos. Amazon knows almost as much about its customers as they do. Twitter knows what you think and when you think it.
Moreover, as the stuff in our lives increasingly goes online, the volume of data we actively or passively generate will explode. Firms such as Facebook already profit handsomely from the fact that its users are also its product: its “cost of materials” is close to zero largely because those users have no idea how much their data is worth. As Jaron Lanier, an insightful computer scientist, puts it, “the dominant principle of the new economy has been to conceal the value of information… We’ve decided not to pay most people for performing the new roles that are valuable in relation to the latest technologies. Ordinary people ‘share’, while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes.” As a result, Mr Lanier fears “a massive disenfranchisement will take place.”
Such issues have long troubled Jennifer Lyn Morone, an American living in London (pictured). So to regain some ownership and control of her data (and other assets related to her existence) she decided to become Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc (JLM), registered like all savvy corporations in Delaware. And what started out as an art project—her brief as part of a master’s degree at London’s Royal College of Art was to “design a protest”—is now transforming her into a humanoid/corporate hybrid.
JLM is an intriguing attempt to establish the value of an individual in a data-driven economy. As Ms Morone’s business plan describes it, JLM “derives value from three sources, and legally protects and bestows rights upon the total output of Jennifer Lyn Morone.” Those sources are the accumulation, categorisation and evaluation of data generated as a result of Ms Morone’s life; her experience and capabilities, offered as biological, physical and mental services; and the sale of her future potential in the form of shares. Crimped into a male business suit that clearly does not fit—perhaps to stress that this is not a natural role for her—Ms Morone describes her thinking in this brief video.
It may not be her natural role, but she is taking it pretty seriously. When JLM is fully operational this autumn, all the data generated by her life will be captured and stored on her own servers—an attempt to take back control of information that, until now, has been co-opted by corporations and other entities (hello NSA). To do this, Ms Morone and a group of computer-geek friends are developing a multi-sensor device that she will wear almost all the time (“it’s not yet waterproof,” she muses), and a software application known as the Database of Me, or DOME, which will store and manage all the data she generates. JLM’s eventual goal is to create a software “platform” for personal-data management; companies and other entities would be able to purchase data from DOME via the platform, but how they could use it would be limited by encryption or data-tagging. The software, then, would act as an automated data broker on behalf of the individual.
Until DOME is done, which Ms Morone hopes will be before the end of the year, the growing amount of data JLM is amassing will be visible on its/her website—although as Ms Morone gains more control over her data she aims to transform this transparency into opacity; only she will collect the data, and only JLM will decide how and where it can be viewed, used, sold, bartered or donated. This may be challenging: some of JLM’s most valuable data, such as financial transactions and health records, are by definition controlled by other organisations (such as banks), although Ms Morone will be able to re-package and resell them (data can be sold many times without losing their value).