Where's the border between digital life and life?

Sitting here at the Supernova Conference session on The Personal Infosphere thinking about the semantics and meaning of existence.

Jeff Clavier, of SoftTech VC, began the first session of the Supernova Conference by asking how we will get our life back. A series of companies, imeem.com, eSnips, Plaxo, NetVibes, and Plum gave demos about how they are helping answer that question for their customers.

Each company presented a particular approach to interacting with information, from instant messages in imeem's case, to the stuff we collect about our interests (eSnips and Plum) and how we organize it in a page (netvibes). I am most impressed by the idea presented by Plum, of a recorder that watches what you do, capturing copies in the background that you can choose to save.

But the interesting question that emerges out of all this is the notion of how companies create value. If they capture and organize our information, they create an asset from the so-called "wisdom of the crowd" and use that to generate value in the market. Who owns and controls that data? Obviously, as Hans Peter Brondmo of Plum said, the individual can always pull their informaton out of the system (though it isn't clear that they can retrieve their data or that it means they can erase their data and the associated metadata that may have been created based on it from the host's systems).

Which brings us to a very interesting predicament. If the user's own their data and the company creates value from its aggregation, does the company owe more than simple connectivity and storage to the user? Do the users, as raw material, begin to be a resource that needs to be compensated? Do they, at least, deserve some role in the governance of their information and the use of aggregated information? What happens if a company is acquired and the rules are changed by a new owner--do users lose their rights in their information or the value it helps create?

Metadata is a beautiful and powerful notion, but it's deeply social and political, too.

On another tack: There's a lot of talk about our "digital life'? I wonder where our life stops and this digital one starts. Is it at the keyboard? At the screen where the eye encounters information or when the information is in some way changed or interpreted, such as when I add a tag to it.

We're talking business here, but there are bigger questions here. Certainly, business can play a huge role in making our lives bigger in various ways, but when it is not transporting us to far countres and, rather, exporting part of us into this virtual world, social and political questions that don't easily fit in debates about business models are left for later. They probably need to be part of the first discussion. Worth reading again: The Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee Hock, who founded VISA.