Questions around space users’ digital surrounding worlds (Umwelts)

This chapter concludes with a brief discussion about space users’ digital surround' ing worlds, especially their legal nature. One can expect numerous debates about this point as technology becomes increasingly pervasive in the built environ' ment. It has been noted previously that in line with Lessig’s (2006) second life in cyberspace, a digital self emerges in smart buildings. Lecomte (2019a, 2020) talks about Umwelt to describe the digital surrounding world of this second life taking shape in smart environments (see Appendix 2.1).

Umwelts will undoubtedly be the object of a fierce battle between those who are concerned with the technological domination of humans’ surroundings, on the one hand, and those who aim to optimise control in real estate, on the other hand (e.g. optimisation in view of monitoring or policing space users, or in a more utilitarian perspective in view of maximising value generated in smart buildings). In any cases, it is more than likely that in most countries, regulators will not let the real estate sector decide on its own how building occupants’ Umwelts should be dealt with in smart buildings. The concept of Umwelt epitomises the new set of social and ethical responsibilities facing the real estate sector with pervasive computing and embedded technologies.

It has been previously suggested that DUR holders should transfer to building occupants some level of control over their digital surroundings as part of a trade-off between direct and indirect value creation in smart real estate. The digital self would therefore be a by-product of smart space usage, an incidental right to digital rights whose ownership does not automatically belong to the actors of this second life (i.e. space users themselves), but to the owners of the physical and digital infrastructures where it occurs. The latter include the real estate sector, but also any parties involved in smart space (e.g. technology companies).

Going back to the property rights framework discussed in this chapter, there are many unanswered questions regarding Umwelt. Concretely, is Umwelt a space user’s digital persona with a legal existence of its own, or just a series of data in ever bigger databases devoid of legal existence (apart from the relevant laws on data protection and privacy)? The view presented in this chapter is that Umwelt unquestionably gives rise to a digital persona, the afore-mentioned digital self.

However, this digital self who emerges out of algorithmic interactions under digital rights holders’ full control only serves to feed the illusion of freedom in space. In that sense, Umwelt does not exemplify increased and better appropriation, but rather it is an indication of ever tighter domination of all spaces in smart buildings, including building occupants’ most private sphere, their unique ontological perception of one’s digital surrounding world (Lecomte, 2019a).

That’s why axiom #5 posits that the utility derived from appropriation captures smart space’s user-centricity in full. Smart space appropriation is first and foremost appropriation of space users’ Umwelts so that DURs holders logically control space users’ digital surrounding worlds. That’s the reality transcribed in the proposed digital rights regime which can be seen as the product of natural order, unless regulators decide to step in and alter it.

The analysis presented here focuses on a series of twelve economic axioms to avoid being embroiled in what could be a very heated debate crystalising many fears about technological domination in human lives (a.k.a horizontal technology in Ihde, 1990). As new technologies start to materialise in the built environment, the real estate sector’s best answer to these fears will come from a proactive approach to digital governance as well as clearly defined digital strategies in smart buildings.

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