The tragedy of the data commons, and the fate of our future wealth

If time is the most precious thing any of us possess, why do we fritter away so much of it? We are remarkably content with exchanging our seconds, minutes and hours for very little in return. We do so with uninspiring, micromanaging employers, annoying colleagues, mind numbing Facebook news feeds, anxiety inducing messaging apps, banal reality television and useless, automated customer support desks.

We try as best as we can to contain and protect our time. But it’s getting harder, through no real fault of our own. Now we have to contend with not just losing our time, but losing our data. Everywhere we look, both time and data are being sucked away from us. Both are then processed and refined; magically turned into rivers of gold by the digital alchemists of our era, Facebook and Google. It’s made them fantastically rich in the process, and it looks set to make them even richer in the future.

But has it all been at our expense? If our time and our data were iron ore or coal, mined out of our backyard, would we think a little more critically about where those profits flowed?

Reclaiming the data commons

Most of us don’t question the idea that the extractive industries in Australia owe a debt to the nation’s citizens for access to the wealth buried within the land. Each year this debt is repaid to the people of Australia in the form of royalties. Royalties are the cost of extracting resources from the earth, and are paid to state governments to compensate the ultimate owners of those resources – the citizens of Australia. In 2015/16, the NSW State Government collected $1.19 billion in royalties. It’s serious money – roughly $159 per person.

So when we think about the other less tangible extraction taking place, that of our time and our data, could it not be argued that the resulting profits from the monetisation of this extraction should also generate a similar royalty? Given most of these data and time miners send their profits offshore, a royalty system might mean at least some income generated here would be reinvested back into the Australian economy.

Like the physical commons of the earth, the data commons of Australia is an asset we collectively own, and we should reclaim it. It represents our citizens time, their creative output and more and more often, their identity. The oil wells are in our backyard, yet most of the population just don’t realise it. And maybe that is the modern ‘tragedy of the commons’ of our time.

What is fintech’s role in all of this, if at any?

Like most people, I am in a constant battle to discipline myself to put my many digital devices aside, to reclaim my time and put it towards something productive. To stop feeding the voracious data machine, which, like any positive feedback loop, simply gets better and better at extracting real money from me the more I indulge it.

Like many people, I’d like to put my precious hours towards something that makes me smarter, maybe even wealthier and definitely slightly happier, or more mindful. The digital world around me might want me to ‘engage’ with them more often, but to be frank, I’d much prefer to just engage with myself a little more, uninterrupted by a ping, a buzz or a chime.

It’s frightening to think how much time we are actually losing. The global average time spent on social media per day in 2017 was 135 minutes. That’s nearly 16 hours per week, or two, 8 hour working days. In a year, on average we spend just over one entire month on Twitter, Facebook Instagram, Snapchat and the rest.

As a result, a whole industry has now emerged to help tackle smartphone and social media addictions, with apps like Moment and Google extensions like Work Mode a few of the more popular.

Just imagine if I put this time towards something productive instead – something that earned me more money, either by saving more, spending less, or increasing my earning potential. And just imagine if whoever I banked with, or invested with, earned more money in the process too. Why, they might even be incentivised to help me break my bad habits faster. That would be a much better feedback loop, and a great win-win.

The irony is, while we like to think about fintech as making things as frictionless, and as ‘in the background’ as possible – most of us have very little faith in anyones ability to form good financial habits – maybe the real magic is in helping us break the destructive, time sucking habits, that stop us from getting where we need to be? Even I’m aware that’s possibly all a little too utopian in its thinking. But if you could achieve it, wouldn’t it be something?

Nailing your time to money ratio

Time is the one thing I can never get more of, therefore the older I get, the more I need to ensure I am maximising the conversion rate of my time into dollars in the bank. Time leakages must be stoppered wherever possible. And if I can also benefit from the profits been turned at my data’s expense, that would be a nice added bonus. Can a fintech product address the first? Quite possibly. The second however is a question for society, but one well worth asking.


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