Why you should have a say

By Johannes Ernst


If one person makes the rules, without the informed consent of the governed, soon bad things will happen. History books are full of examples for this: everything may go splendidly for a while with a good and wise king who makes all the decisions. But as light follows day, one of the next kings will turn out to be not good and wise but selfish, perhaps incompetent or even cruel. If that king still gets to make all the decisions, and the people don’t have a say, this bad king will do whatever he pleases, as bad as it may be for the people, because there is no way to stop him.

It’s no different for technology: many of the “surveillance capitalism” companies today started out with mottos such as “Don’t be evil” (even if only one of them stated it publicly). But they do many things people like you and me, their users, don’t really want them to do to us. And we can’t stop it because we don’t have a say.

Like tracking us all across the web. If you had a say, would you vote for more or less tracking? (Or none at all!)

Or news feed algorithms that make us see more ads and keep us glued, sometimes addicted, to the feed? Which is full of content that triggers our anxieties and rage, because that’s what sells more ads! If you had a say, would you vote for more or less ads? More addiction or more balance? More content that makes you anxious and angry, or content that makes you happy and lets you easily get to sleep at night?

Clearly, our technology today would be different, and better for us, if instead of just the big platform overlords, the users had a say.

Personal data is really important. It can be used for many good things, but also for many bad and even evil things.

At Dazzle, we want to empower everybody to take back their data. But where to? That place – we call it Data Palace – is going to be a piece of software, which is going to be developed by somebody. Is that somebody going to be a good king or a bad king in the decisions they make about that software? Just now, or in 10 years? Will they start “not being evil” but then just become another surveillance capitalist like all the others?

The point is, we don’t want them to be a king. (Even if that king is me, who currently is the lead developer.) We don’t want them to make decisions over the heads of their users that favor themselves over their users. In fact, we don’t want them to be able to make any decisions over the heads over their users.

So the users need to have a vote. Not necessarily a vote to make or approve every decision, that probably would be way too much work. Also, software development requires specialized knowledge and expertise, so many day-to-day decisions can only be made by software developers. But users need to have a vote that can stop bad things in their tracks – where the users decide what is and isn’t bad.

So at Dazzle, we want to create a structure where you have a say over the software and the whole system that manages your personal data. You can’t control your personal data if you have no say in the technology that manages your personal data.

How exactly we will do that we don’t know yet. Will it be one user, one vote? What about developers who build apps you choose to run on your personal data, or companies that you choose to share personal data with? Do they get to have a vote? The same vote as a consumer? Different votes? Do newbies on the first day get the same votes as somebody who’s been active in Dazzle for a long time? How do we avoid that, say, commercial interests band together and skew the votes in their favor? There are lots of questions to answer.

(I have many thoughts on this subject; but this post is too long already. More for some other time.)

For now, they key points to take home are:

  • Your personal data is too valuable to let others make decisions over it; you should be able to decide.
  • Your choices are limited if somebody else decides about the software that manages it for you, without asking you; you need to have a say, even if you are not a developer.
  • At Dazzle, we want you to have a say.

(You could always get involved and help us figure out how.)