John Henry Clippinger Jr.

Meeting Dr. John Henry Clippinger

Strategist, Inventor, Entrepreneur, Writer, Policy Analyst, Consultant

Monday, November 19, I got the chance to sit down with Dr. John Henry Clippinger, accomplished author, research scientist at MIT Media Lab and prominent voice in the crypto and blockchain sphere. Recently John visited our office in Tbilisi, our conversation covered topics from our current data model, to tokenization, and on to what exactly to do with Facebook.

Exclusive interview

The weekend prior to our interview was the Tbilisi DataFest, being fresh in my mind, it seemed as good a place as any to kick off our conversation. As I explained to John, the conference was a celebration of the virtues of big data and its utilization in a number of fields. Despite speakers present from Google and Facebook, I expressed my consternation that no speaker addressed what I see as issues within our current model of online advertising and engagement. Clippinger shared these concerns, explaining what he sees as the “enormous risks”, reflected in our current model.

Clippinger takes the side of Roger McNamee in conversations concerning Facebook. McNamee is, among many other things, a venture capitalist, and was an early investor in Facebook. As John explained, McNamee is now of the opinion that the social media platform has to be more than regulated, “he just says shut it down”.

John too, was an early adopter of Facebook, “I was at the Berkman Center when Facebook was starting, and I was one of the first people on Facebook,” conceding he would utilize the social media, in the academic selection process, to see exactly what students were up to out of school hours. The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society is famously the research center at Harvard University where Facebook began.

"I think you absolutely have to get away from an advertising model, it’s corrupting everything we’re doing."

From the outset, Clippinger was skeptical of Zuckerberg’s notions, especially as it became apparent that Zuckerberg wanted control over people’s data, and when breaches were made, he was quick to apologize and continue on with the same policy, Clippinger believes it still to be the corporate strategy up until the present.

News that made headlines around the world, led to an unmistakable change of sentiment from governments and citizens, and sparked Supreme Court hearings in the U.S. for Facebook, Google, and Twitter, was the revelation in March this year, that Facebook had ‘inadvertently’ allowed the profiles of up to 87 million people to be collected by the political data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica.

Clippinger suggests this model of online engagement and treatment of personal data, bent on advertising, doesn’t end with Facebook, “[it] also applies to Google and Youtube, they are programming and manipulating people’s attention, they’re creating echo chambers… they’re gaming people in order to get them to release information, to create click-throughs, that creates profit… they’re totally not accountable… so I think you absolutely have to get away from an advertising model, it’s corrupting everything we’re doing.”

In From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond, a book Clippinger contributed to and edited alongside David Bollier, John suggests services and protocols that offer autonomy and do away with the need for third-party control, as a means of defense against current data trends. Autonomous individuals not only control their data and identity but are given the opportunity to create value from it.

Included as a conclusion for the book, the Windover Transition, is a set of principles to guide and provoke ongoing public dialogue to create a shared vision of a “next generation social Internet that is trusted and responsive to human and ecological needs”. Clippinger suggests the Windover Transition, which now guide the work of Token Commons, “actually helped influence some of the banking thinking as well as GDPR, the idea is that you have self-sovereign identity.”

A ‘self-sovereign identity’, as John explains, ensures “that your identity is not issued to you by anybody, not a bank or even a state, you are your own password and we now have the technology that I can generate through biomechanics, biometrics, and behavior metrics a unique signature that I can then use, I can control and then I can create further credentials on top of that... It blows my mind that we’re still struggling with this stuff.”

Clippinger acknowledges tokenization as a big step toward making self-sovereign identity a reality, “You can actually create accountability, without revealing or having to share the underlying data, that is one key element to this system.”

Tokenization is a process of securing sensitive data by substituting it with non-sensitive data ‘tokens’, tokenized data is unrecognizable but retains the same format as the source data, therefore, requiring little change in database processing.

“So one of the things we look at,” John continues, “is how do we create a token to represent an access control privilege or verifies a particular data attribute. So you’re opening this up to allow lots of people to create different notions or credentials of authority that are suitable to different times, there is no top-down control, that’s the key idea.”

Through self-sovereign identity and tokenization, individuals will not only be able to control their data but create value from it. Clippinger believes this system would be “better for everybody”. “[It’s] real data, it’s consensual, it’s not exploitative, I can have different ways of verifying the data, you can create a chain of accountability. Right now there is so much noise in the data, you can create enormous value with a move in that direction.”

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From tokenization and identity, John and I shifted tracks, speaking about his work with MIT Media Lab and the rise of the open-sector. A lot of John’s work is to do with how people interact and organize. Within the MIT Media Lab, Clippinger has most recently been working with Kent Larson on CityScope, a project to reimagine challenges in spatial design and urban planning. CityScope leverages highly sophisticated digital tools to make once conceptual challenges, tangible, collaborative and interactive.

CityMatrix is a project of CityScope that utilizes projectors, Lego blocks and machine learning to create an engaging real-time augmented reality for urban planning, “[we’re] able to model different choices that cities make in terms of the tradeoff between different kinds of housing, different kinds of mobility, different energy. To allow people to come together and say we want this kind of city, we want a city that is sustainable, that is high-performance city, that allows high degrees of innovation.”

An open sector, in John’s words, is a space that “isn’t captured by the public sector or the private sector.” Open sectors are a movement away from established institutions and top-down leadership paradigms. John calls the nation-state monolithic as compare to the network structures he envisions of the future, “you have polycentricity as a governance principle, so you have different locusts of control and different operability, but not one fits for everybody.” An open sector is where rules emerge organically from given protocols or even interactions.

“So one of the things we look at,” John continues, “is how do we create a token to represent an access control privilege or verifies a particular data attribute. So you’re opening this up to allow lots of people to create different notions or credentials of authority that are suitable to different times, there is no top-down control, that’s the key idea.”

Just two days after our interview, John’s Facebook skepticism was further reinforced, despite public outrage and share prices plummeting, COO, Sheryl Sandberg, admitted to hiring a PR firm to attack George Soros, a vocal opponent of the social media platform. That PR firm went on to leverage an anti-semitic dog whistle against Soros.

John’s knowledge is not only far-reaching, permeating an abundance of topics, it turns out he is also quite prophetic. John continues his work with MIT, he is a co-founder of the Token Commons Foundation, he is an advisor to a number of projects leveraging tokenization and blockchain technology, including Swytch, he is also a member of World Economic Forum’s big data group.

Clippinger is a contributor and co-editor From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond; The Quest for Identity and Autonomy in Digital Society, the author of A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity, and The Biology of Business, Natural Laws of Enterprise.

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