Metamerica: Evolving the Governance of a Digital Democracy


Dateline New York: April 3, 2017 – With 28 of the nation’s 80 major data centers totally down and the rest just holding on, over 75 million people who rely on cloud-based computer applications and storage have been completely crippled by a loss of data that is unprecedented. It has caused the biggest financial crisis since 2008. Hundreds of software-as-services companies have lost all of their data and the economic impact of the combined losses will easily reach $10 trillion!

The White House issued a statement today urging people to stay calm. The Federal Data Depository Corporation is now saying that some people will have access to some of their data as early as next week. “Health records are job one,” said the HHS director in a joint statement. “We have back-ups for everyone’s DICOM  files and most of everyone’s MRIs and about 500 million x-ray files on near-line storage. It will just take time to reload the data.”

The FCC issued a similar statement promising that the 20 billion hours of user-uploaded content stored in the cloud since 2009 and the 500 million hours of professionally produced on-demand content may be available by the end of the year.

Sadly there is no word on when the Microsoft Office Cloud or the Adobe Cloud will be back online. And to the delight of most citizens, the IRS has lost almost every tax return for the past four years. There is one bit of good news: Verizon’s and AT&T’s LTE network can support VoIP calls, so at least some of the 165 million households and businesses without voice communication will have a work-around in the next few weeks.
How did it happen?

This is a partial representation of me:

A partial representation of me

In Metamerica (the data that describe America), we are all a bunch of ones and zeros. Everything about us – our tax ID numbers, social security numbers, credit card numbers, contact information, financial data, medical history, entertainment preferences, computer software, the content we own – everything we are is described by ones and zeros on a magnetic or optical storage device somewhere.

Even today, we live in a world where metadata (data that describe other data) are more important than the data themselves. For example: What good are the data on your iPod without the directory that tells you what songs and videos are available and where the computer should go to get them?

Similarly, as we enter the super-digital age, we (all of us) will be completely described by the metadata stored in Metamerica. It is the virtual country that describes our physical country, and to be perfectly frank, Metamerica is more valuable and more vulnerable than physical America.

The advent of cloud storage, cloud computing, and centralized data warehousing is more than a trend; it is a paradigm shift toward the efficiencies and fiscal benefits of storing and manipulating the information in our world digitally.

Why pay for a group of IT technicians to patch servers and tend to racks of computers when you can plug into a computing and storage cloud and only pay for the services you use? It is identical to how America transitioned from generating its own electricity to purchasing electricity from the utility grid. The economics are too powerful for anything to stop this transition. It will be complete in a very few years. Want to see it today? Go to Google Apps for Business, salesforce.com, Yahoo!, Facebook – the list of software as services, subscription software, and cloud storage companies is getting longer every day.

Now, we live in a world where everything about everyone is stored somewhere. The world is evolving toward a place where access to these data is going to empower all kinds of things, good and bad. This is not so much a privacy issue (although you could label it that way) as a governance issue. What should the structure of the government of Metamerica look like? There are no geographic restrictions, no towns, no counties, no states, no country – there are just Metamericans that describe Americans. Because Metamericans are data, they can be sorted any way an interested party might deem reasonable – by community of interest, by behavioral preferences, by medical issues, by DNA sample, by … you name it. Metamericans are data and data can be mined, analyzed, and correlated in every imaginable way.

Is your DNA covered by copyright law? Are your media or television viewing habits? Are your medical records going to be available on a local storage device, regional server, your doctor’s LAN, or your HMO’s WAN, or at the fictitious, but reasonable to imagine, Federal Data Depository Corporation? If every bit of a Metamerican (pun intended) is data, which bits are protected, which are protectable, which are private, which are semiprivate, and which are public? How many nontechnical people with digital medical records will die because there were no paper records of their medical condition or history and they could not afford, or didn’t know how, to back up the data themselves?

When my father was transferred by ambulance to a hospital from another medical facility in an emergency (?) situation, they forgot to give his paper records to the EMS technician who was transferring him. I got to the hospital an hour after he did, to find staff completely mistreating his illness because their broadband connection was down and they didn’t have any paper records to base his treatment on. I had stopped by the other medical facility and picked up his charts, but what if I had been unable to do so?

To be honest, I’m not too worried about a terrorist attack with a dirty bomb or any other weapon of mass destruction. What I’m worried about is how we are very quickly becoming dependent on explosive amounts of centralized data and how unprotected, and un-protectable, those data are. Want to create a financial crisis that will make the recession of 2008 look like a trip to Disney World? Take out the data warehouse of the IRS, a few banks, a couple of credit reporting agencies, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. If it happened today, it would be hard to recover from. If it happens in 2017, chances are we will not be able to recover. These are just a few of the myriad issues we are going to have to think about as Metamerica and America evolve together.

How could the Great Data Crash of 2017 occur? Maybe it will be cyber-terrorism.  Maybe it will be an incredibly robust computer virus. Maybe it will be a solar coronal mass ejection that is too powerful for our atmosphere to block. Sadly, there are about a zillion ways for it to happen and only one way for it not to.

What we need is a cross-industry task force that would include experts from the military, information technologies, healthcare, legal, telecommunications, consumer electronics, entertainment, ethics, and the government to get together and have a serious, Socratic debate on the appropriate way to govern Metamerica. This is a nontrivial problem; it’s about our economic sovereignty and our national security. To begin to solve it, we need to deal with the bigger question: How can analog leaders possibly govern a digital constituency?

A version of this post is also available here.

Catch me at the TCS Innovation Forum – North America-2014 for more on this and related thoughts on Digital Wisdom!

About the Author

Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is Fox 5 New York‘s On-air Tech Expert (WNYW-TV) and the host of Fox Television’s monthly show Shelly Palmer Digital Living. He also hosts United Stations Radio Network‘s, Shelly Palmer Digital Living Daily, a daily syndicated radio report that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment. He is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC an industry-leading advisory and business development firm and a member of the Executive Committee of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards). Palmer has also authored several books.

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