Julia is 25 years old, fresh out of university, where she got a degree in history and a master’s in education. For the past year, she worked in a bookstore that is now closed. She is back at her parents’ house during the Covid outbreak, looking for work in the midst of a severe depression.
Millennials are now the largest generation in the labor force. Today, there are 1.8 billion Millennials worldwide, with more Millennials in China than the entire US population. Millennials started life in a great recession caused by institutional failure, only to land in the teeth of the worst depression in 100 years. Too many of them are saddled with student debt, unenthusiastic about the future. Most of them feel they have no true sense of purpose, no dreams, and no way to build a meaningful career and life. Many feel that opportunity has been pulled out from under them.
From Covid-19 to schools closing to student loans to a depressing job market, young people more than ever feel the system has let them down. Here is a three-minute video summarizing what I want to do:
Now is the perfect time to re-imagine the world for young adults. Now is the perfect time to start …
My name is David Siegel. I’m a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I’ve started 20 companies and written five books on technology and business. In 2016, I was a candidate to be the dean of Stanford Business School. Since then, I founded two blockchain companies. Now that I’m 60 years old, I want to have much more impact on the world. In this essay, I’m putting down the blueprint for a nonprofit institute I want to start now, an institution that is desperately needed, to create a better future for Julia and young people around the world.
There are two parts to it:
- Teaching young people who will become the next influencers. Helping them learn to use the scientific method and cost-benefit analysis to understand what problems to solve and how to solve them.
- The personal data locker, which will replace education and empower people, rather than give all their data to large companies.
These two things are very related, but it takes some time to understand that. Here, I hope to show that this approach is needed.
A New Institute for a New Reality
I named this new institute the Giordano Bruno Institute because I’m inspired by a man who, in 1590, proposed that 1) the earth is round, 2) it revolves around the sun, 3) the sun is just another star, and 4) the universe is infinite and has no “center.” For writing those words, he was the last man burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition. After his death, there was simply too much evidence that he was right. The church ended the Inquisition, paving the way for Galileo to popularize these concepts. He is, philosophically speaking, the patron saint of science and reason.
The institute will address three big and very related problems:
Problem 1: Education
Education is broken. We have inherited an educational system designed to produce obedient factory workers in the 19th century. It fossilized and today burdens society by teaching people facts, testing them, and giving them grades. They spend years studying text books and go into debt for more than a decade just to have a piece of paper that signals something to employers that is increasingly irrelevant. Employers are half the problem. This book lays out the argument.
We shouldn’t try to fix education. We shouldn’t saddle the next generation with classes, tests, grades, and degrees. They don’t matter. We should replace education with lifelong work and learning that will help people as they work 10–20 years longer than we do today.
Problem 2: Institutions
It’s not just education. We are failing at the basics. This is what young people like Julia face as they enter the job market:
- Health care — patients are over-diagnosed, overtreated, and over-prescribed. At least half of all health-care dollars are wasted.
- Technology — markets reward monopolies that invade privacy and individual rights.
- Monetary policy often creates needless recessions.
- News — skewed by corporate interests and gamed, especially scientific reporting.
- Governance — representatives put themselves first, before constituents. Voting systems are gamed almost everywhere. People have no voice.
Problem 3: Privacy and Personal Data
Big Tech is an increasing presence in our lives. We benefit, but at a price. This long infographic shows what each large company knows about you. It’s called surveillance capitalism. Here are the key points:
- Google knows everything we have ever bought at Amazon.
- Alexa is listening to you all the time; Amazon employees can and do listen to your conversations (“for training purposes”). Same with Siri.
- Google and Apple know every place you go.
- A Facebook lawyer said “There is no invasion of privacy at all, because there is no privacy.”
- Your entire prescription history is available to any company that wants to purchase it.
- Credit-card companies sell your purchase data to hedge funds and ad agencies.
- Most companies you do business with store your credit-card data. Theft is common.
Today’s legal and financial playing fields are skewed toward large, monopolistic companies that harvest our data and use it against us. The machine economy has already started. We can’t prevent it, but we can control it for our benefit, rather than for the benefit of the shareholders of a few giant companies.
Solution: The Personal Data Locker
Instead, we could create the personal data locker and capture our own data for our own personal use. I have been writing about this for 20 years and outlined much of it in my book, Pull. Ten years ago, I made a short vision video:
The key components
You will build and use a self-sovereign digital identity
This means you are responsible for your own identity. Microsoft, the W3C, and others are coming together around the DID standard, which could be the foundation of identity for this century.
Own and maintain your own data
You will keep a record of all your travel, likes, comments, photos, videos, appointments, doctor visits, diagnostics, prescriptions, classes, grades, parking tickets, purchases, reading, people you meet, conversations, and much more. You own it. You control it. You use it for your benefit.
You don’t do it by hand
You’ll use software to accumulate, organize, and use your own data. These are your personal digital assistants. Today, we have Siri, Alexa, and Google. They seem free, but they are actually quite expensive. They work for their companies, not for us. This is the wrong model. You want to have your own software working for you on your own data on your own terms. You want to use all the APIs available to bring your data home.
A market for personal digital-assistants
In the world I want to create, there is an open market for personal digital assistants that can use your data to help you best. If you don’t like your assistant, fire it and hire another one to work with your data. This open-source playing field gives consumers choices that are fundamentally different than the monopolistic solutions we have today.
From apps to services
Apps are traps. Apps keep our personal data on private-company servers. When we have proper, legal digital ownership of all our goods, and services are represented by digital tokens, markets become much more liquid. This is what I call the world of offers. It’s meant to replace apps, which haven’t scaled and are bottlenecks and traps for data and poor management of assets. We can transform apps into services. For more on the world of offers, read The Pillar Project Gray Paper.
An open social network
Today, large social networks are centralized. People are used to “free and easy,” but more and more we are beginning to understand the true price. How much do you trust FaceBook? I think you should own your conversations, your posts, your photos, your likes and shares. You should be able to retract them any time you like and select the people you want to share with.
Share data as needed
You should share your data with companies only as needed. You should give permission to use your data only for a very limited time or a single purchase. As you gather and control your genomic data, health records, and many more details, you will need help to manage all the permissions and sharing with others. Every time you share data it should be a two-sided contract with obligations on both sides. I have written about this.
YouTube’s algorithm now determines what kind of content creators make. The YouTube business model is to sell ad impressions to millions — it isn’t very different from the interruption-model of advertising on TV. Educating consumers is as important as creating a new business model for content.
Infrastructure should be open-source
To level the playing field, no single company should own the infrastructure of any industry. That limits innovation, because you need permission to do anything on the platform (e.g., Apple’s app store or Amazon’s infrastructure). I want to show the way by starting with small pilot projects with the power to transform industries and create a new era of competition and innovation. It must be governed by a non-profit foundation, so no company can own it.
Next, I will give examples of how this could work. In these scenarios, assume you have all your data going back many years.
Example: Social Networking
It’s true that Facebook has all the users, but it also has all their data and is losing trust among many of them. We can all agree that Facebook should not be the dominant owner of our private data, yet many challengers have come and gone. In my view, the only solution that has a chance is one where:
- You collect your own data
- You own your own data
- You pay to store and safeguard your own data
- You use your own data to benefit yourself
- You employ software that makes it all easy
- You control the rights to your content
I believe this kind of platform can become viral because a) it gives people what they want, b) it costs them less in the long run, and c) many service providers will come to this platform to make money. So, while the platform is open-source, there are many ways for third parties to offer products and services on top (similar to WordPress or Linux).
Example: The Pull Marketplace
I describe the world of offers in my book, Pull:
Today, millions of products are listed actively on millions of web sites. We use search engines to find them. In the world of Pull, all your products have online digital birth certificates, and you maintain the data for them. If you want to sell something, just lower the offer price and offers will find you. This is the world of passive commerce — it flows the opposite way to the supply-driven approach we use today. It’s a switch from pushing products and services down the supply chain to pulling them as needed. This is semantic search — similar to the way we search on Kayak.com.
Example: Your Personal Digital Doctor
Would you rather have IBM Watson as your personal physician, or a nice person wearing a lab coat with degrees on her wall? In a few years, I would much rather have Watson. Watson has read every paper in every field, understands that many papers are highly biased and many are worthless, has access to tons of data on many cases and conditions, can communicate with other specialist systems, and readily changes its mind when it learns something new. In contrast, your doctor sees a very small number of patients, doesn’t stay very up to date on research, has little idea about outcomes, and is mostly interested in maximizing his own career. I’d rather hire and pay Watson to be my primary care physician and then use the services of the medical system to do what Watson says. And, if a better algorithm comes out, I would gladly switch from Watson to a better solution, while keeping my data under my own lock and key.
This is the idea of the personal data locker. Your primary-care bot would work with you to optimize your health. It would use many other specialist bots to help you with dermatology, eye care, various kinds of diseases, sports medicine, travel medicine, cardiology, neurology, radiology, etc. All of these bots have access to your personal data. You pay them. Any time you want, you can fire them.
Of course, you can get opinions from human doctors and others you see and feed that information in, so your primary-care bot can best advise you. But if that bot says you should or shouldn’t do something, even if it’s against your doctor’s advice, you should think twice before going against your bot’s advice. And there’s no reason to just have one — you could have five different bots and see what they all say as a group.
Example: Your Personal Financial Advisor
Today, the law requires intermediaries to hold your financial assets for you in most countries. So in this case, you will transfer all your assets to a single registered broker and then manage everything from there. Your personal data locker has your entire real-time balance sheet and every transaction, so it knows everything about your financial situation. It’s your data, you store it and you manage it. You can go to the bot store and hire any number of financial bots to manage your assets. The list may include insurance, long-term investments, short-term, cash management, credit, funds, tax advice, risk management, foreign-exchange, etc.
Most of these will be algorithm-based, so you just hire your own bots and they will trade for you. You will probably want a master portfolio manager bot to manage all your specialist bots. And you will have a financial-advisor bot to help you with your financial goals. You will probably have a comparison bot that helps make sure your bots are trading and investing for you with up-to-date strategies and is always looking for better specialists.
Example: Your Career and Education Coach
To understand how bad the situation in education is, I recommend reading Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education. I don’t advocate trying to fix or improve education; I believe we need to replace it entirely with something more effective.
The answer is — your digital assistant working with your personal data locker! I believe learning and then doing is over. We have to learn by doing. We have to interweave doing and learning starting as early as possible. I have ideas about primary and secondary school education, but here I’ll focus on people 18 and older.
The model is simple: work and learn, work and learn, work and learn.
Your personal digital assistant knows more about you than anyone. So your digital assistant also becomes your career coach, tutor, and guide to future knowledge and success in business. It’s all zipped together. The goal is to set up a pattern of learning what you need to learn as you need it, which helps you stay relevant in the economy during your entire life.
How this would work: You talk with your assistant about your goals, and it finds options and brings them to you. Together, you discuss them and choose whatever looks best at that time. For example, you may need work now to pay your rent, but you also want a career in film production. So your digital assistant tries to help you get either the most money with the skills and credentials you have or a relevant job in the film industry. Since everything is machine-to-machine, your digital assistant goes out and tries to negotiate the best job for you.
You may want to learn about anthropology or biology just for fun, in which case your assistant will help you do that using many available online resources, some of which are paid and many of which are free. This would not be related to work, it would be a hobby, though it may figure into future job choices. As your digital coach knows more and more about you, you can start to trust it to bring you new and interesting things to learn. If a better coach becomes available, you can easily switch. The new one learns all about you by mining your past data.
I envision learning resources to be “atomized” so they can be consumed and learned in many different ways under different circumstances, and your personal coach will use all those resources to help you skill up. Everything is unbundled and “a la carte,” rather than structured as a semester or even a course. Two good examples are Marginal University and Kahn Academy.
I think more and more, the project will become the basic unit of work. We will have markets for people to collaborate with software to work on projects. (I believe collaborative projects and simulations should also form the basis of primary and secondary education.)
In my view, the future for anyone over eighteen is 80 percent work and 20 percent learning on an as-needed basis. There won’t be any law school or architecture school or degrees in physics or chemistry. You’ll go get a job and the job will pay you for the skills you have. Your employer will expect you to learn and improve, no matter what your age. You might dedicate a day a week or a few hours a day — whatever you need to keep improving your skills and increasing your market value.
People born today will live much longer than previous generations. We will work and learn this way well into our 80s.
I hope we will mostly do away with professional licenses and overconstraining regulation so markets can just solve problems dynamically. Studying for and getting a certification, license, or degree means much less than we think it does. I would work hard to educate employers forget about credentials and signals. The days of learning first and doing second are over. It has to be hand-in-hand, driven by doing, constantly adapting and improving. Your personal assistant will also review your skills from time to time to help keep you up to date on the latest methods and research. Simulations will play an important role.
You, and everyone else, will be augmented by technology. This is great. We will all have access to tremendous resources. Machines will do most of the repetitive work. Humans will do nonroutine physical and cognitive work, alongside our robot and AI helpers. Sometimes we will help them. Anything we need to learn we will get by working with our personal career coaches (until we can get a neural upgrade).
Your personal coach is also your professional partner. Working together, you can do much more than you can do alone. It doesn’t just help you learn, it helps you get your job done. At any moment, it may find a stretch job that you should apply for, even though you’re happy where you are. It can help you negotiate everything with current and future employers.
Your personal assistant learns how you learn best and gives you what you need to achieve your goals. You don’t sit through classes or do homework unless you and your personal assistant decide that’s what’s best for you. There will always be new ways of learning, and your personal assistant will continually adapt to help you get where you want to go.
A New Nonprofit
I am perhaps one of the few people in the world best positioned to create, launch, and grow this platform. In 2017, I raised $21 million to do it. The Pillar Project is alive and well and continues to improve its world-class crypto-wallet, adding more and more identity and personal-data features as they go. I founded the project, raised the money, and was the first CEO, joined by a group of enthusiastic team members and supporters. Pillar is an open-source nonprofit Swiss foundation. I left the project in 2019 to move to the USA and focus on creating something even bigger. Pillar is a great project, and I expect to collaborate with them, but the crypto/blockchain market is too limited.
I am as qualified as anyone on earth to realize the promise of personal data. I am ready to build the dream I laid out in this essay in 2015.
The new nonprofit doesn’t exist yet. It can be based anywhere. The goal is to put the right foundation in place for massive adoption later.
I want to build this foundation from the ground up. The idea is to build a learning institution, then community, then a software platform.
Phase 1: Learning Cohorts
I want to design a program for young people, probably PhDs but not exclusively, whom we hire for a two-year post-doc program. (Though I think to be safe, it’s best to make it one-year to start and learn from there.) We will eat our own dog food and learn by doing: pick a project we believe is worthwhile, then tackle the details, the statistical analysis, the cost-benefit, and the communication. I want to go after the big, difficult topics like climate, energy, education reform, election reform, governance, health care, insurance, the future of law, incentives, monetary policy, etc. Over time, the group will build a body of shared knowledge that will form the core of our collective belief system.
Ideally, the first cohort would be 20 students. They would be paid. They can be anywhere and work remotely, but we will also have in-person interaction as conditions allow.
Phase 2: Communication
We want to develop a common language for dealing with uncertainty. Then we want to launch a web site with interviews, podcasts, blogs, papers, videos, etc. We want to reach out to other groups, collaborate, create, share, communicate, etc. We measure our effectiveness by how many lay people we can reach and what it takes to get them to understand both sides of a complex topic.
I would like to start a new cohort each year and keep the alumni very involved. Within a few years, we launch a retail exhibit space where the public can come, interact, learn, share, etc. Sort of like an Apple store for the mind and for the future. A community space for classes, lectures, workshops, hands-on projects, and more. Perhaps we will write books, make videos, create podcasts, create our own events, or go to the World Economic Forum and host our own program there — whatever the group thinks will give us the most impact.
Phase 3: Community
There’s no reason to limit the program to a few people or a physical space. I want to build a worldwide community where anyone can come learn, contribute, collaborate, and help us grow. Our cohort of young researchers form the core, and we hope to grow to thousands around the world. Related communities include LessWrong, Radical Markets Exchange, and the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders.
The community has five layers:
- Core team members, who are paid staff or alumni.
- Influencers whom the core team can engage with.
- Very interested people taking and participating in the core curriculum, many of them graduating in different ways. We draw core team members from this group.
- Interested people who might take a class or learn something but are not committed.
- The general public, who generally are not going to become engaged but need to understand issues. They respond to anecdotes, short visual messages, analogies, and storytelling. They are our ultimate target. I would love to build an app for them to look up answers to difficult questions and get a good framework for understanding the issue.
Phase 4: Open-Source Software
After a few years, I hope the community will be ready to take on a big challenge: creating a platform for people to own their own data. I describe this in my book and in my vision for the institute. I’ve been talking about it for 20 years. I believe young people are going to need a new operating system to help them run their lives based on ownership of their own identity and data.
In this phase, we bring together a core team of architects and developers to create the “kernel” that will form the basis of a) your personal data locker, and b) the “operating system” that works with personal data. If you read my book, Pull, you know this includes standard formats for data to be interoperable.
Then we will open the kernel up to the community to create solutions around initial use cases that gets people to download and start using their personal data lockers. I have written much more about this in other essays.
The projects below are worth understanding. They are relevant to this effort. The goal is to unify and bring all these efforts together and bring awareness to consumers that they have a choice. There are challenges. I would like to create the marketplace where many many projects can flourish, where we can build and adopt data standards, and where consumers can assemble their personal data lockers in a modular fashion, one use-case at a time …
Open.ai has raised over $1 billion so far. They have also launched a private company to build on their platform. Please see their web site to get a sense of the scale.
Global Citizen Project is trying to create an umbrella for all things personal-data
Human Brain Project in Europe’s goal is to bring all brain researchers together for faster collaboration and build simulations.
Pillar Project is a crypto-wallet that has the potential to help people take ownership of their data. They are starting to work with cities on log-in and other self-sovereign solutions.
The Solid Project, by Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the Worldwide Web, is all about self-sovereign ownership of identity and data.
Open Personal Data Store project at MIT.
LifeScope.io is a for-profit company that wants to tie into all your services’ APIs and suck your data into your own personal data locker.
Digi.me — personal data store.
Idena — a proof-of-personhood blockchain for immutable identity.
Own Your Own Data Foundation — networking and education.
Personium — an open-source project.
MyDex — personal data store.
Diaspora, which started life with a crowdfund, has built a lot of pieces of the messaging puzzle. They are focusing on social connections.
Hub of All Things is a system that lets you store your personal data.
HOPR data privacy on blockchain
The DID open-source identity standard.
Note that this project has nothing to do with “monetizing your own personal data.” It’s about using your personal data. I explain why you shouldn’t monetize your personal data in an essay called Ad Agency of One.
I don’t have a team, and I certainly don’t have a detailed plan. In 2017, I actually raised $21 million to build this vision as a crypto-funded project. But this project is bigger, and it isn’t a crypto project. The goal is to build a fully open-source suite of solutions as an antidote to Big Tech.
Don’t tell me I’m thinking too big — I may be thinking too big for you, but not for the MacArthur Foundation. Not for 1.8 billion Millennials. Not for the task of changing the way we all live and work with our own data.
Do you see the importance of what I want to do? Do you want to be part of it?
I don’t expect this to come together without meeting the right people and raising a lot of money. It could take years, but this institute is desperately needed. Too many successful platforms are monopolies that extract value from their “customers” who have little choice but to feed their data to a company in pursuit of profit. I don’t know anything about traditional nonprofit funding, but I do think a nonprofit can have a business model and make plenty of money — it just can’t have profits.
I’m in the exploratory phase now, looking for funders, partners, contributors, and connectors. If you think you can help, please contact email@example.com.
- My talk to the EU Parliament last year
- The essay that helped get this started — In Reality
- Cutting Through the Noise
- My new YouTube channel
- My video on why the digital ecosystem is broken
- Follow me on Twitter
David Siegel is a serial entrepreneur in Washington, DC. He is the founder of the Pillar Project and is raising money for a new post-Covid company. He is the author of The Token Handbook, Open Stanford, The Culture Deck, Climate Curious, SkiBetterFaster, and The Nine Act Structure. His full body of work is at dsiegel.com.