Who Owns the Digital City?

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For me, this question of ownership started when I was looking into my fridge in college wondering where all the food went. Money was tight, but the motivation to succeed at something kept me thinking. As I closed the door and ventured out into the world, I began looking for places to eat. Fast food joints were everywhere and students roamed freely. Eventually, a sushi restaurant called Mr. Roboto’s spoke my name through an interconnected app on my phone. A notification popped up directing me where to go, and a short distance later I was seated comfortably eating some delicious seafood.

Fast forward to the present and now everything seems intertwingled. I’m sitting in a room with some of the greatest minds of our time. Ted Nelson, Steve Wozniak, Jaron Lanier, Dick Heiser, and Christine Borgman are all here. They speak of what it was like to see a pioneer construct the ideas of what computers and networks would manifest into. They hint at the interweaving of information in all its forms. Thoughts float about as data is being aggregated from just about any surface. Roads have street lights that trigger camera captures when a color changes. Parking meters are referenced through phone apps allowing money to refresh the time. Even, utilities are gathering information about the people who pay for electricity. All that data (and more) is coming together in ways that can greatly affect our lives.

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But who owns that data? The chances are it is not you. Most likely the information that is being collected is by various startup companies that are looking to profit off the mass aggregation of people’s lifestyles. They want a quick buy out by a larger corporation making the founders millions of dollars while the individuals adding to the system get nothing. Call it capitalism, or the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit, or whatever. All that is clear is that there are people who are looking to ‘own’ the information of the digital city and profit off that. But who really holds the power here?

Some might say that those who are controlling the digital information are the people who are initiating the servers and databases to direct the data. This is true. The people who have the biggest and baddest computer systems tend to run the world. Look at Walmart, or Google, or Facebook. They all have large information systems that pull and push and manage that data. This helps them make ‘better’ decisions, but they are limited by the infrastructures that have been put in place.

For instance, you cannot run a server without power. There must a wire, or group of wires, running directly through the walls taking the electricity from a power plant into the building where a budding internet startup is being born. Without those connections of electricity, the digital city does not exist. It becomes just an idea of those sitting in darkness hoping to make something out of nothing.

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So to answer the question above, the people that own the digital city right now are the utility companies. Without them, no internet startup can exist. Without energy being pumped into the building, servers and air conditioning and air hockey tables cannot be established. They need electricity to function, but few seem to acknowledge this. As a startup builds up and sets itself up for investments and potential acquisitions, they tend to forget who really laid the ground work. The electrician who crawled through the dusty confines of the walls who laid the very foundation of power gets no credit for this. The power company that is generating the electricity gets no mention either. But in reality, they are the true owners of the digital city. They make it work on a fundamental level that most cannot see.

 

Article written by Matthew T. @industrychanger

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