Why we need first person technologies on the Net

mousehammerWe need first person technologies for the same reason we need first person voices: because there are some things only a person can say and do.

Only a person can use the pronouns  “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine.” Likewise, only a person can use tools such as screwdrivers, eyeglasses and pencils. Those things are all first person technologies. They were invented for individual persons to use.

We use first person technologies the same unique ways we use our voices. “The human voice is unmistakably genuine,” The Cluetrain Manifesto says. “It can’t be faked.” Same with first person technologies. GoPro cameras, for example, are first person technologies that are used as many different ways as the people who strap them to their helmets.

Here in the physical world, first person technologies are extensions of our bodies and our senses. When we swing a hammer, twist a fork, ride a bike and drive a car, our senses dwell within each of those things. They become part of us, and us part of them.

There are social influences on how we use first person technologies, of course, just as there are social influences on how we speak. But that does not diminish the personal nature of what we do with our tools and our voices. Each of us speaks, writes, walks and drives in ways that are ours alone.

What’s purely personal is clear in the physical world. In the networked world, however, it is not — and this is a problem that needs fixing.

For example, there was a time when personal computers were truly personal. They ran applications that you acquired (or created) and used by and for yourself. You did not have to subscribe to them as services, and they did not require some company’s cloud. That time was before personal computers became network nodes. We are in a new world now — one in which first person agency is both provided and limited by what the lawyers call second and third parties, out on the Net.

Take smartphones and tablets for example. These are personal in many intimate ways, but they are also suction cups on corporate tentacles. So, while you can still operate a PC as independently as you would a typewriter, you cannot operate your mobile device except by the graces of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and other controlling parties — especially your mobile network provider. And, unless you are a serious hacker, you can’t acquire apps except through company stores. Many of those apps are also just interfaces on remote services over which you have little control.

This state of things is one of the reasons why privacy has lately become a big issue. The term covers several concerns at once. Here is how Eben Moglen unpacks them:

Privacy—as we use the word in our conversations now all around the world, and particularly when we talk about the net— really means three things.

The first is secrecy, which our ability to keep messages “private,” so that their content is known only to those who we intend to receive them.

The second is anonymity, which is our ability to keep our messages—even when their content is open—obscure as to who has published them and who is receiving them. It is very important that anonymity is an interest we can have in both our publishing and our reading.

The third is autonomy, which is our ability to make our life decisions free any force which has violated our secrecy or our anonymity.

Our old PCs provided all of those graces. (So does your GoPro camera.) We have none of them with our smart mobile devices today. Not yet, anyway.

Books in the physical world are first person technologies as well. Digital ones we “buy” from Amazon are not, because they come with leashes. Eben asks, “What if every book for the last five hundred years had been reporting its readers at headquarters?”

We won’t get back our privacy, or make real progress toward real personal freedom, until we develop and deploy first person technologies for everybody. Without them our democracies and marketplaces will also continue to be compromised, because both require those three virtues of privacy.

First person technologies are also required  by the distributed design of the Net, which Paul Baran first describede in 1964, using this drawing:

The Internet is the one on the right. In it each node is equal and possesses full agency. It is also what Adriana Lukas calls a heterarchy. Routing (which Paul Baran called “hot potato” and we now call packet switching) takes the best available path, rather than running only through central (or multi-central) relay points.  He posed this in contrast to the centralized model of computing, which prevailed at the time, and to decentralized networks, which reduced some of the risks of centralized networks but still held the same vulnerabilities, because they still contain central hubs and therefore also hierarchies. We experience those vulnerabilities  today when services we depend on are attacked, and the privacy of many is compromised at once.

Design models and habits die long and hard, however; and it remains too easy to create centralized services, such as corporate clouds, and to deliver benefits from those that are good enough — until something goes wrong.

First person technologies are a step in the right direction: the distributed one.

From the start a variety of ProjectVRM developers have been developing first person technologies. Here’s a quick list:

Everything there is open source or uses open standards and protocols. There are many others I insult by not listing (corrections are invited); but the main thing is not just to give credit where due. It’s to show groundwork toward a whole new category: first person technology.

Nailing down what this category means, and contains, is job one. It isn’t easy, because there is plenty of gray in the networked world. But lines can and must be drawn. Here’s one: we can use them to make a dent in the universe. Here’s another: They move us from what Dave Winer describes as Model #1 to Model #2:

Once we’ve done that, we can see how first person technologies, for example, deliver benefits in all four of the development categories Fred Wilson listed in the speech he gave at LeWeb in December:

  1. Money
  2. Health and wellness
  3. Data leakage
  4. Trust and identity

Solutions here will come, like our own voices, from our sovereign and independent selves, using tools that extend our native capabilities. They won’t come only from systems others provide for us. They will, however, make those systems better as well.

Bonus link: Tahrir.


  1. I like the general tone of this, and a new meme is welcome, but wonder

    - Aren’t nearly *all* technologies ‘invented for individual persons to use,’ some or all of the time?
    - Doesn’t the reach of what we care about in terms of privacy, autonomy, etc. extend to tools that go beyond ‘individual’ use? Might ‘first person’ fail to do justice to the social/collaborative aspects of ‘consensual commerce’?

  2. I support what you are rooting for and towards.

    Life is a 1st person experience with 2nd and 3rd party concerns and influence.

    Technology is most definitely 1st person in origin, and should always convey this sovereign source authority in its social deployment.

    My use of your technology… this however is where a giant hole appears that far too many of us are falling into. Taken to the extreme, my use of our technology or data poses truly serious ramifications in a model of Society that has failed to define ‘I’ under personally sovereign Terms.

    That last diagram is where an important focus should resolve. It takes 2 to tango; we can make life better, richer, and more meaningful together. But what are the costs of abdicating self-reliance amongst peers that are made from all the Human qualities we all possess, not just the good ones? Too high? No concern?

    As makers of tools having a first person experience with the technologies we make… how should I consider you? Are you the same as I? Do I create with this context in mind, knowing that end-use will take place in hands and minds that work just like mine? What incentive drives that effort on my part? What guarantees that you and I are both actually the same at run-time? What proof precedes us?

    Reality is we are not the same, but this should not prevent the higher order ideal of making it possible for each of us to interact in a manner that suggests we could be… should be… are.

    I think this resolves to “Self Serving Technology”.

    As the maker, your quest is self serving.

    As the person you find yourself making for… a user/customer/buyer/etc… my quest is also self serving.

    We want no less than the same thing. We want to self declare what comes next… what happens from our Individual perspective when using technology.

    The market rewards those who capture me and contain my use of the tools that makers make currently.

    But the power of technology is limited in profound ways with such models of use and monetization.

    Your tools are my tools, my tools are your tools.

    First person technologies are ideally self-serving in operational design. Yes, we can network them if desired. Yes, they create social context. But they serve each of us as Individuals, from our first person perspective… and aggregation of value is something we each contribute to for self-serving benefits.

    “We” is not actually a thing in this Universe… We are really I & I… Individuals all, an organism in aggregate… but never less or more than Individual Humans in reality.

    Life is self-serving… our technologies should empower that, not some imaginary service model.

  3. Marc, I believe the distinction Doc makes is whether the technology in question can be used by an individual without some other party participating.

    For example, let’s say you are writing up the details of The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread (TGTSSB) which you have just invented. It’s going to make you richer than Gates but it still needs a bit of work and you estimate 6 months of refining and documenting. Would you rather do that using Microsoft Word or Office 365 cloud app? Not compelling? Suppose you are a dissident and your life depends on making sure nobody knows who wrote your manifesto. How about now? Planning to use Google Docs for that?

    Buy a local app like Word and you can use it with full function without a connection. The cloud version doesn’t function without a connection, *and* without the vendor having full access to your content.

    Yes, the reach of what we care about in terms of privacy, autonomy, etc. absolutely extends to tools that go beyond ‘individual’ use. However, the claim here is that first-person tools are foundational. We could have a fully-functioning society with only first-person tools available. We know what a society with zero first-person tools looks like. We have that now and call it ‘prison’. If we had to preserve only one category, it should be the 1st person tools. Instead we are focusing so much on 3rd person tools and ways to provide through code and policy the privacy and autonomy missing from the architecture.

    First person absolutely fails to do justice to the social/collaborative aspects of ‘consensual commerce’ since these are by their nature not 1st person tools. This is true in the same way that ‘hammer’ fails to do justice to the social/collaborative aspects of Habitat For Humanity. First person tools and 3rd person activities are not mutually exclusive. To the extent that 1st person tools enable consensual commerce, the commercial aspect is a much larger context.

    But at the same time, to the extent that 1st person tools can participate in many, MANY activities other than commerce, the context of how they enrich our lives is much greater.

    This is the more important aspect when we disentangle the two things. Once you buy a 1st person artifact, the relationship with the seller/manufacturer potentially ends. Does anyone know or care where they bought a physical book 20 years ago? How about that DRM-infested e-book they bought yesterday?

    The physical book is a 1st person artifact. The DRM-infested e-book that can be revoked by the seller is not. That is the difference Doc is trying to drive out and it is foundational not only to preserving autonomy and privacy, but to the long-term stability of a digital society.

  4. A piece of paper to write on is a first person technology. The ability to write on it… and then eat it when “NSA” knocks on the door… or, put it in a drawer… until that evil dictator dies so you can publish it without fear – absolutely necessary for the development of free thought. Same goes for the ability to publish pseudonymously.

  5. Thanks Marc, T.Rob, Devon and Emil. Great job helping us unpack and improve the concept.

  6. Doc, would this be a definition of first-person technologies: “Technologies that enable individuals to act as independent, autonomous, private peers in all facets of computing, networking, and society, without creating reliances on second or third parties that compromise that independence, autonomy, or privacy”?

  7. What about “Personal Usage Technologies” which is easier to understand for lambda people ?

  8. I dunno, Doc: not yet sure the category is so easily delineated. What makes a TECHNOLOGY, as opposed to a use, first-person? Is a tweet from @alaa less ‘him’ because it is broadcast by Twitter? (Or via his local ISP, or over a UUNet backbone?, or using TCP/IP?) ∞

    Would it be more so, if he held some kind of exclusive legal control over it? And that would be enforceable how? ∞

    “… For example, there was a time when personal computers were truly personal …” I gather you say that because each outside connection they made was default-off, and personally instantiated by the operator. (SneakerNet, fire up the modem, whatever.) ∞

    Once connectivity exists, though, and especially when delegated to agents, how do we define when the user’s degree control over that data and those agents is first-person, or adequate? I may use Ghostery (or a similar browser plugin) to watch where my datascraping tracks are going …but then Ghostery is my agent, and where does THEIR stuff go? ∞

    I am not sure there is any networked *technology* that qualifies for T.Rob’s rule: “can be used by an individual without some other party participating.” Amazon participates, in some sense, in the data I put for my own private use on an AWS server, even if encrypted. I unavoidably have a “reliance” on them, to use Drummond’s phrase. Even Emil’s piece of paper can be captured by a passing Google Glass. ∞

    I suspect the issue here is about control and dominion of a tool’s data, not the ‘technology.’


  9. Great concept! To Damien’s point (directly above) it is true that “First Person” is a little more ambiguous (at first) than “Personal Use” or other more descriptive terms but it might hold connotations that are more powerful, well suited to the task and likely to succeed in the longer term. I have just written some initial thoughts from my own perspective on this at my blog: http://dazzagreenwood.com/2014/03/20/first-person-technologies/ Kudos to Doc and Joyce both on this awesome new meme!

  10. Damien, “personal usage” doesn’t do it for me. “First person” maps to language and law, among other things. And we don’t just “use” technology. (I don’t think it’s just a coincidence the term “user” is applied mostly in drugs and tech.) Verbs matter. We swing a hammer, we point and select with a mouse. We drink with a cup. We plug with a jack. We talk with a phone. “Use” is more broad, but that in itself is a problem. When one is a mere “user,” there is no distinction between when one is in control and when one is being controlled.

  11. JamieXML, there may be no networked technology that does not involve some agency by other parties. But that doesn’t mean we should make no distinctions about where primary agency lies. That’s what i’m going after here.

    As for data, that’s a tough one, because — as Kevin Kelly says — the Net is a copy machine. Technologies, on the other hand, can have clear points of primary, secondary and tertiary control and responsibility that map well to first, second and third persons in language, and first, second and third parties in law.

    And we clearly do need more agency on the individual’s part. That’s what we’re after here too.

  12. I’m a huge supporter of this term and concept, throwing in my support in my blog post at http://quartzjer.tumblr.com/post/80375916256/first-person-technology too.

  13. wow. I’m just floored that you think this is coherent, or advisable if it were coherent. where does “technology” begin and end? are protocols technologies or not? should I be using “first person” HTML, or is it OK to use the same one other people use? electricity? telephone frequencies? Many technologies depend on shared use and much more that is shared. much of what you’ve posted here is such a non-starter that I can’t even grasp why you think it’s welcome.

    and then your goals: “secrecy.” really? is that really the recipe for a good society? If the Bernie Madoffs and LIBOR fixers and Sinaloa cartels and child pornographers of the world *know* — actually *know* — that what they are doing will never be discovered?

    Like so many others, you are putting your ideas about technology far above and outside of your ideas about politics and society, and recommending a recipe that taken in its most basic terms would mean the end of the social contract–where the whole world becomes the “dark web.” does what goes on now on the dark web fascinate you so much that you think it should replace the open web?

  14. wow exposes the bridge that must be crossed… this binary view of “open” versus “dark” when discussing technologies that originate with first person integrity.

    FOSS has always demonstrated a respect for the personal sovereignty of its contributors and all of the uses that will extend the efforts of their creativity.

    When we shift from software to Society, FOSS loses its structural integrity however. It is not a common thing to talk of participation in Society in ways that make the FOSS comparison useful. Why not?

    That said, we see some of the best models for participation in the creative outcomes of Society demonstrated within FOSS projects.

    I suggest that the disabling aspect of Society currently manifesting this problem is the model of its administration that is set by inherent Agreement at default participation. At birth, a centralized, system-centric administration model of Rights attribution is enforced. This approach is decidedly system-first, even in a Society that has gone to the trouble to configure sovereignty as an act bearing first-person integrity and source. The ‘John Hancock’ signature is a first-person technology with administrative effect and meaning across time. And yet, the lack of a tangible method by which other people may enforce that sovereign model of participation with participatory equality is of ultimate importance.

    Personal sovereignty, and its elevated importance in constructing first-person technology interactions and experiences as we construct the nature of our National sovereign models, even if via FOSS projects… is not happening yet. FOSS projects become band aids fixing real problems while leaving the inherent problem in place.

    We perceive a problem… and yet we get lost in the forest of communication, as Doc and wow demonstrate in this thread… not because there is inherent disagreement between their positions, but because we lack the actual context of a person-led and accountable FOSS model of administration in any community originating within “Society”… a word that should be taken at its loosest definition.

    We require participatory equality via the originating methods we use to stand up FOSS contributions… not just within the micro-communities we currently apply FOSS meaning to… but also within the macro-community, Society itself… which should be understood as the root FOSS opportunity.

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