Online identity – My Body is My Data

I am not an activist and I am not paranoid about others looking at my data trails before hiring me or starting a new business.

The first time I went online was over a bulletin board system run by the school’s system administrator – who eventually became a good friend of mine – when I was living in a small town a few miles from Madison, Wisconsin. It was 1994 and I was attending my senior year in high school. Raised in Rome, Italy I had the opportunity to travel abroad and get my high school diploma in the US. Like many of you, I make a living online and the Web is my office.

If you are a nerd, my story shouldn’t be too different from yours. My nickname on the Internet has always been cyberandy, first on CompuServe, then AOL, and on everything else from there. As vintage as it sounds, cyberandy is the result of a generation that grew up with cyberpunk writers and sci-fi movies, before finding itself digitised at 360 degrees, producing 5 Exabytes every two days – until 2003 this was the amount of data produced by all of humankind and now it only takes 48 hours – and way beyond what Philip Dick and Terry Gilliam had taught us.

Here is a photo of me when I was 3 years old.


It was taken by my parents at my grandparents’ beach house in a small fishing village called Marzocca, in the Marche region right in the center of Italy.

The photo was shot by my dad using a 35mm film – “old media” atom based recording, right? – and I’m glad I can still see it several years after.


Here is the ultra-sound portrait photo of Michele Leroy in my friend’s   belly, shared using WhatsApp and saved on my Android phone. Will it be there when Michele Leroy is my age or will it simply be put up for sale by WhatsApp since most of us refused to pay for the App?

In 2012, in his closing remarks at SXSW, Bruce Sterling (a well known guru for my generation – brucesterling on Twitter) talked for the first time about the “Stacks,” referring to Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook, and he explained:

  1. how their online business model is constructed: users shall remain within each brand software/hardware stack, enjoy free services, and then their self-generated data will either be sold to advertisers or be bought back by the user;
  2. why they will eventually collapse: they simply don’t generate enough value other than storing, augmenting and re-selling personal data they don’t have any right to use.

At that time I began moving along his line and, and following @matteoc’s intuition, we opened a discussion with an amazing think tank of freethinkers, actors, managers, philosophers, nerds and academics about what our identity really is, how it will evolve in the future and what technology we need to protect it while bringing it to the next level (meaning, beyond the smiling portrait we have on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter).

My curiosity for this topic grew and here is a list of dots I’ve been connecting so far together with the think tank:

  • The debate over privacy is overrated: it’s probably already too late for privacy to be protected and most importantly, we don’t seem to care that much. While we think this is true, we can see this topic changing fast, together with our online habits;
  • At the same time, there is a growing demand for anonymity and new technologies already featuring data protection as premium: European startups like Aircloak are developing solutions to help users prevent privacy violation due to tracking;
  • A competing arena of companies providing encrypted storage for personal data is emerging: companies such as MyDex, The DataBanker and are all betting on users tired of having their surf data sold to unscrupulous marketers;
  • Big data is nothing other than your own data: it’s simple … small data combined becomes big data and while network operators like Verizon in the States and Telefonica in Europe, in partnership with large retailers, are thrilled to monetize the so-called Transformed Data (“information about individuals, where some effort has been made to anonymise or aggregate the data to remove individually identifying elements” the Open Knowledge Foundation), we should all get more control over it and look for trusted relationships with our suppliers rather than just begging for free services;
  • In the “sharing economy” we quickly became “what we share”: this is pretty insane since we’re more, or maybe less, than just a set of reviews on AirBnB, the check-ins on Foursquare or the quote we use to present ourselves over Twitter;
  • We’re more lonely than ever before: have you ever seriously considered the connection between social networks and being lonely? Believe me you should – under the sleeker UX and the maximum friendness of today’s social networks we’ve been crafting a complete new dimension of loneliness – here is an inspiring video titled “the innovation of loneliness” on the topic;
  • Computers are gathering more information than ever about people, places, topics and organisations using graph databases and deep learning algorithms: the move from keyword based search to semantic technologies has an impact on our daily lives – we all need to be able to curate the “entities” (concepts) we care the most about and help computers (and the world around us) understand and compute our unique point of view;
  • The tools we developed to translate atoms into bits, crafting our personal stream of data, are still Jurassic and way too limited to unleash the full potential of our digital selves: the bracelet I use to track my daily activities is not even releasing raw data and the business model behind it works just like another “Stack” – I produce the data, they store it, compute it with their proprietary algorithms and sell it either to me as targeted advertising or to 3rd parties – primitive and not fun!

…have a look at Boolean forms for defining gender and sexual orientation to get an overview of what I’m talking about: most of the registration forms we use are designed to feed marketing campaigns for large brands and most likely they are based on behavioral psychology and social studies from the seventies where targeting was relevant for either male or female – believe me there is nothing wrong with profiled ads, but a problem arises when they became the only way for defining ourselves online.

  • Emotions are going to freely flow on the Internet at the speed of light: some people already talk of the Emotional Graph as the evolution of today’s Social Graph – W3C has released EmotionML v 1.0 and a new wave of device-centric apps are able to capture and share emotions and feelings from facial expressions to EEG waves frequencies;
  • Cloud computing – at least as it is today – makes us even more vulnerable than we think: already in 2005, a long time before the NSA scandal exploded, Rackspace, a well known US cloud hosting provider, was caught passing Indymedia’s private data to the FBI without asking permission – centralizing data is not going to make our society more secure and democratic, quite the opposite;

…a new movement called Personal Cloud is emerging and it’s worth investing our resources to bring it a step forward.

  • We’re One – Humanity as organism: we belong to spontaneous laser-targeted interest-based communities and we appear finally “liquid as a whole” – not just ego-centric humans representing and sharing our lives on the Internet; we also belong to digital tribes ready to launch a new kick-starter or to overthrow a newly elected President (well…not really yet but you get the idea) – on the surface of today’s online interactions we are globally acting as a system and not just as individuals (if you’re interested in this area you might have a look at the studies of the Global Brain Institute).

With these items in mind, @matteoc and the Think Tank (myself @cyberandy, @novedavi, @styopa78, @ziodave, @livinka and many others who have been providing ideas and contributions to this topic like @marco_rosella, @punkrats and @mausa89) decided to promote a talk for SXSW Interactive called “Identity: data, reputation and trusted clouds.

Soft and Hard data: a closer look at your true digital self.

If we worry about large corporations pushing the boundaries of privacy and using a lame cocktail of sociographic data as the virtual currency of our virtual world, we forget to deliver a clear vision. Our biography is really just soft data that can be easily hacked, tweaked or made up – it’s not us, but a mere projection of whom we would like others to see and perceive.

Let’s move in a completely different direction.

One meditation technique I’ve been practicing for some time now was first introduced by Gurdjieff and helped me understand who I am and how hard the data that represents my inner self is. A DNA sequence, continuous heartbeat pulse rate and EEG of my unconscious mind: this is my true personal data. This combination has been previously defined as bio-transparency, I’d rather call it radical openness. This meditation technique is as simple as repeating while walking, eating and talking:

“I Am”

Note, I didn’t say “I Am Andrea” or “I Am Rama” but simply…

“I Am”

I’m not going here to describe the entire process of this meditation (there is a lot of literature around – I went through Osho’s explanation several times before writing this article) but I strongly encourage you to try it out as pathway for reaching radical openness, self-awareness and togetherness. If you’ve never practiced meditation before, don’t get scared; it’s really just a brain training exercise with a proven track record for improving focus, relaxation and awareness.

Back to our true self: when we start moving away from our name, biography and daily storytelling, our body becomes the active node of a pulsating ecosystem: the body becomes the media.

This body-to-data network that doesn’t involve your “cultural” identity (soft data) but is truly made up of your real-time hard data is what I’ve started calling Internet Yoga.

Out.As/You aims at being a platform where our bodies and minds become the social media, a platform where our EEG, heartbeat, blood pressure, temperature, respiratory rate and oxygen levels become the “conversations”.

If you ask me who I am, I will pretend to know it. I will provide answers by deliberately manipulating my soft data: “I am Andrea Volpini, born in Rome, … and so on.” You’ve written this short bio many times on an endless number of forms, and I have too, but in reality:

  • I am nothing other than the magic combination of 37 billions cells – this is what I am – my body is the real data that represents my identity and I’m already sharing it with you on this planet.

There are plenty of biosensors nowadays – from Star Trek-like medical tricorders to brain reading headsets and more – and a flourishing market is on its way. We’re missing a channel, a social network that helps us interact and collaborate, on the intersection between physical and digital worlds, in a more fulfilling and meaningful way.

I want to preserve privacy, don’t get me wrong. The concerns we’re been raising these days, as highlighted with the dots above, are just the paved ground for this next evolution to happen. We want and need to preserve our data, control it and share it on peer-to-peer networks – that’s a given. But the Internet, the brightest invention of our time, simply cannot just be a collection of smiling photos and tweets: it can and has to become a matrix of ever-changing frequencies and body experiences to help us live a more intense and substantial life.

EmotionalLand: framework of the idea.

The most interesting aspect is that we’re ready to create something unique – we have wonderful technologies and enough understanding of today’s pervasive networks that we can experiment with a complete new medium: ourselves and radical openness. The problem is only how. We have sensors capable of gaining insight from our inside world, so let’s answer the question of how to design such an experience by leveraging on this hi-def hard data.

Here are few principles I’ve been putting together:

  • Real-time only: we’re on Out.As as long as we live broadcast our senses and signals. The platform follows the principles of a decentralised network and it has no storage or memory. It allows you to beam data to your private storage unit if you like, but you don’t have to. No worries! Archiving activity streams and gaining insights from it will still be trendy for a few more years to come but in the context of expressing ourselves, it doesn’t really matter – it actualy becomes a threat. I beam (meaning I plugged my sensors on Out.As) therefore I am. That’s all that’s needed.
  • Immediacy matters: our user experience on today’s networks is in most cases mediated, providing us with some level of control. I write my bio or publish a post, I read it back, think it aloud and edit it again – I tag a photo, look at it and suddenly remove it – this process helps us craft our identity and influences the way we see each other. On Out.As all our verbal and nonverbal communication is beamed without giving us the option of editing or removing the stream – forget the undo function. The data is never stored, simply beamed; if I decided to logon I know the rules, when I log off I don’t exist anymore.
  • Experience is synchronic: when I logon on to Out.As the information is beamed and remains invisible – I can access it, and visualize it, only by sharing equal or incremental levels of intimacy to someone else in the network. We meet in a bar and I decide to become self-aware – I choose to focus on my ‘here and now’ and I start beaming (“I Am…I Am”); you’re in front of me and you can logon as well (by beaming your own hard data) and at that point…we’re both on the same channel and we can augment our conversation with our feelings, breathings and EEG – we fearlessly share our reactions to other(s) – our body becomes part of the conversation. Access to our (hard) data is always mutual.
  • Clustering is spontaneous: Out.As continuously processes beams of all kind – a conversation in a café in Milan and a meditation in a temple in Nepal are all flowing on the same Grid – the system uses pattern analysis and advanced deep learning alghorithms to bring together people at different location with similar signals and intentions. Your mood creates your World, the Grid is just an amplification.
  • No one excluded: as long as we beam we exist on Out.As/You and we can enter into contact with clusters that already exist on the system. This means that I can follow the vibes generated by a Yoga class in New York or an argument between two friends in Egypt. We learned from Dr. Emote and many others great masters of our time that consciousness and intent reflects on matter. Our body and intimacy are deeply affected by our intention. It’s most likely that I will experience a greater sense of relaxation by following the Yoga class rather than by feeling the arguments between the two friends. What matters here is that neither the two friends, nor the Yoga teacher can make their experience private on Out.As/You (privacy does not exist) – again they can disconnect completely or shield themselves from others but everyone will be able to login and follow an event.

Are your ready to experience #radicalopenness? Join us in Austin for SXSW 2014, we’ll be happy to share our love for this project and involve you in the design of the idea.

Andrea Volpini


Andrea Volpini

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