Possession is 9/10s of the 3-year-old

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You can’t teach communism to a small child holding a toy and yelling “It’s MINE!” Nor can you teach the kid capitalism, urging him or her to sell that toy in some marketplace. Bribery might get you somewhere, but that’s beside the my point here: humans naturally like to possess stuff, and that’s a problem when the stuff is data. Because data really isn’t stuff.

Still, the urge to own is very real.

Many languages, English included, have possessive pronouns (e.g. , , and ). That’s a hint. So is what Whitman observed (non-ironically in ): that humans alone are “demented with the mania of owning things.”

He was right about our dementia, but not about our exceptionality. Plenty of other animals grab and hoard stuff. Pack rats for example. We humans, however, are very grabby, perhaps owing to our use of opposable thumbs, our ability to build containers for things, and our tendency to yell and argue, which for tribes and larger groups easily turns into war (most typically of the “It’s MINE” kind).

And yet ownership is also massively embodied in civilized life and law.

There is nothing in any of this, however, that lends itself to our understanding either of digital technology or data itself, except to the degree that we can simplistically borrow from familiar concepts in the physical world, such as the ones that say “It’s MINE” and “I should be able to sell or rent anything I own or control.”

To begin contemplating how radically different our new digital world is from the physical one we’ve inhabited for as long as we’ve had thumbs, consider the parts of speech we call . There are only a few dozen of those, and nearly all of them pertain to physical, or physical-like, positions: , , , , , , , , , .

And most are wrong here (where we are now, and you’re reading this on a screen). We may say we go “on” the Internet, and have “throughput” there. But in fact there is no there. Or here.

True, we may borrow freight and transport terms, such as , and ; but in fact we are basically just copying data from one computer to another. As Kevin Kelly put it, more than twelve years ago, “The Internet is a copy machine.”

Data itself is also no more a thing than is a flame, or an idea. As Jefferson put it to MacPherson in 1813,

Welcome to the Internet, folks: a non-place with non-substance, non-gravity and non-distance, making every non-thing connected to it a functional remove of zero from every other non-thing in the non-space we call .

Not a good way to start, but one hopefully helpful toward a cautious approach.

We are new to being digital as well as physical beings, and we have hardly begun to get our heads (much less our bodies) around what that state of being is, and means. We only know for sure that we are as deep in it as fish are in water.

So I suggest that what’s at issue is not whether data can be owned or sold, but how we start scaffolding up tech, manners, norms, behavior and laws respecting how we live with each other in civilized ways in a world that is radically and irreversibly other than anything in our experience as physical beings.

To be fair, some things in the cyber world have gone well. (Or you wouldn’t be reading this on your screen.) But how we respect personal data is not one of those things.

It might help to consider this:

How do we protect our privacy, and signal our intentions toward others about it, here in this cyber place?

We don’t have good enough answers yet. But we should at least know that what Jefferson said about ideas and flames also applies to data.


Written by

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

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