Control Point

[Ben’s note: I don’t like to beg, but after publishing “The Two Worlds of Data Infrastructure“, I resorted to outright begging my friend Neville Crawley to reinstitute the regular note he used to write for Epsilon Theory, a series called “Rabbit Hole”. Luckily for my self-esteem, Neville has relented, and I am SO pleased to announce that we’ll be getting a new “Rabbit Hole” note every week or so. These notes on the nexus of government, society and technology (and how we might think about it), will change your worldview. I know they’ve changed mine.

PS. When he’s not writing guest posts for Epsilon Theory, Neville Crawley is the CEO of Kiva, which is an amazing company that you should get to know.]

I’ve been thinking a lot about product strategy and ‘control points’ recently.

I used to work on strategy with semiconductor manufacturers back in the day and the smartest ones only ever really had two strategy questions:

  1. “What’s going to have chips in it 10 years from now?”
  2. “What’s the control point?”

If you’re a semiconductor manufacturer “What’s going to have chips in it 10 years from now?” is a pretty obvious question to ask, and relatively easy to think about, build models around, etc. (although much harder to get right in terms of scale and timing … sitting in 2008 it was very hard to call relative scale and timing of adoption for VR, IoT, machine learning etc. etc. a decade out).

The more interesting question though, I think, is around control points, and how this relates to product strategy. What I mean by a ‘control point’ is that sometimes, for some period of time, a piece of an ecosystem becomes dominant and ‘controls’ the rest of the ecosystem, and typically sucks in most of the economic profits.

In personal computing, in the Western world, I’d argue that, over the past 25 years or so, the control point shifted through Windows OS, through to mobile OS (with iOS hardware integration creating a particularly powerful control point), through to application layer personal data collection – with Google and Facebook dominant.

Clearly, application layer personal data collection is the control point right now.

I sit here now typing this Rabbit Hole column in Google docs (which I will end up writing on 3 different hardware devices as I grab a minute here and there through the day), before doing some light fact checking for it in Google search, before sending to Ben via Gmail, and then looking at another device to check my Google calendar to find a lunch meeting that I will navigate to via Google Maps.

Honestly, given the amount of data I’ve given Google today (and over the past 20 years) I should just let Google order lunch for me – their external algorithm probably has (or at least could have) a better sense of what I should eat for lunch today than my human ‘internal lunch decision algo’ does. (Yuval Harari writes very convincingly on this point in Homo Deus).

But, my bet is that, despite the convenience of Google knowing I should have the bisque and saving me from the club sandwich, we are coming up to a shift in control points whereby the next control point is going to be around personal empowerment of control over personal data and authorization.

GDPR points in this direction (in a very EU legislative kind of way) and in technology circles this is currently being hotly discussed in terms of ‘wallets’, ‘self sovereignty’, ’encryption keys’ and ‘data distribution’.

I’m not advocating for any one particular system, and don’t have clarity on exactly how or when this shift in control points will happen, but I do think that there is a strong chance we (in the Western world, at least) are going to see this shift in control points over the next 5 – 10 years, and see similarly large changes in personal behavior and value creation.

Here are some links that I think point in the direction of control over personal data and authorization.:

  • This NY Times piece is a long, fascinating account of how Alastair Mactaggart, an Oakland, California resident, “became the most improbable, and perhaps the most important, privacy activist in America” … a great read on a super important topic that gets into the nuances and quite some details.
  • Profile of Tim Berners-Lee / Solid project here and a direct link to Solid which aims “to change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy”
  • A short (blockchain centric) primer on Self Sovereign Identity.

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  1. Just wanted to say thanks for bringing/begging Neville Crawley back into the pack. He’s a very sharp technology scout and I’ve missed his reports from the leading edge. I encountered my first military tactical computer in 1968, and have tracked the arc of hardware and software developments (as well as related societal impacts) for a long, long time. Was very glad to see ET creating a pack territory outside of pernicious social media. Neville’s intuitions about the general direction we need to take seem very sound. Aren’t we all starving for “large changes in personal behavior and value creation”?

  2. Avatar for jim-r jim-r says:

    The internet was created with one thing in mind: de-centralization of connectivity. No single entity could control what was available to the end-users. The technical titans behind the internet in it’s early days fought successfully against the Bell telco spin-offs and other parties to maintain this (although they were successful mostly because telco executives really hadn’t the foggiest idea of the potential of the internet at the time).

    So now we have this wonderful de-centralized canvas, and what do the masses do? BEG for centralization of the application layer! Happily keep their entire life in Apple’s datacenter as long as it means they don’t need to expend the slightest bit of mental sweat into their electronics usage. Install any kind of spyware Facebook can dream of as long as it means they can see what their neighbor posts.

    Neville, I loved your concept of the Self Sovereign Identity. Had me dreaming of that reality. But normal people just can’t handle that, and have no interest in attempting to handle it. I can’t imagine a future where any of the people in my life actually expend any amount of effort into controlling their data privacy. Everyone preaches to have an interest in their data privacy since it provides a platform on which to appear informed, but that goes out the window as soon as they need to navigate with Google Maps. Maybe OpenStreetMap can get them there too, without a tracking cookie, but it’s only 98% as easy to use as GMaps. That 2% hassle just isn’t worth to them.

  3. James - I concur with your somewhat dismal assessment of humanity - and I mean dismal in the economic sense, as in “the dismal science”, not in the dark, pessimistic sense. Hasn’t the march of Personal Freedom always been led by a few dragging along the Grumbling Unwilling of humanity? The America of the Revolution had a lot of Tories; ALL were not willing to sacrifice for their own Freedom. The same is true of the end of slavery - not everyone was an abolitionist and even among those, how many actually marched and were willing to die for that cause? Pick any great change toward individual freedom (from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr.) and what you will find is the Great Unwashed coming along reluctantly, only AFTER someone else - or some small group - has the courage to lead. I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying, yes, I concur with what you say, but I don’t think it changes Neville’s point or observation. Eventually, people will go along - albeit reluctantly - where the Remnant leads (with a hat tip to Mr. Nock). At least, that seems to be the march of history, regardless of how many of us wind up with our naivete shattered along the way.

  4. I’d add Life after Google by George Gilder to Neville’s list at the end. The book winds in and out of a number of topics eventually getting to Blockstack, which represents another future option being developed for the return of control/authorization of personal data.

  5. Thank you! - It’s great to be back on ET, and now with interactive format. Cheers, Neville

  6. Thanks for your thoughts James and Dale - I agree that it is really hard to get adoption of what I’ve come to call ‘organic chicken products’ (substitute products that we all know are better for us, but require marginally more time / money than the junk food version). I don’t think that self-sovereign identity is close to convenience (or utility) parity yet with, for example, Facebook login. But I do think it can be and we are moving in that direction. I’m a fan of the W3C verifiable claims data model as an underpinning standard that will help us to move there (, with much work to do on convenient applications built on top of this.

  7. Thank you, Todd - just purchased!

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