Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Data Revolution #4: The Dark Side of Data

Data Pitfalls, Activism, and Portability

The rise of data's importance in our lives isn't a slam dunk, feel good story. There are pitfalls and drawbacks that can turn our data-driven dreams into nagging nightmares. At the same time, big data brings with it big implications, from privacy issues to ownership. Ownership leads to the question of portability: if our data truly is ours, then why can't we take it where we want it to go?

"The Data Revolution Series" delves into the issues and intricacies of our increasingly data-driven lives, from tracking our everyday behaviour to contributing data points for the social good. Based on insights and commentary from technology journalist Nora Young's (@nora3000) first book, "The Virtual Self: How our Digital Lives are Altering the World Around Us", we'll take a look at the pros and cons of the changing data landscape. This fourth and final post in this series will delve into the dark side of data.

The Pitfalls of a Data Driven Life

Throughout the narrative of "The Virtual Self", Young makes sure to plant several seeds of dystopian doubt. "This boom in data," she warns, "is, in equal measure, both valuable and fraught with pitfalls." What kind of pitfalls? For one, a loss of joy when living a life that is ruled by numbers. "From the outside, though, you can’t help but feel that there’s a relentlessly joyless quality to this sort of self-tracking," Young admits. "Sources of bodily delight and physical expressiveness, such as running or eating a meal, are reduced to stats-driven, objectified activities." She warns, "We become a self that is comprised of statistical information. Data is seductive, because numbers are definite. Meaning, however, can be much more slippery.”

Part of what might cause this loss of joy is the feeling that we are not agents, but rather objects in our own cruel experiment. In many ways, self-tracking forces us to "think of your body as a site of observation and experimentation," which causes us to "think of your daily activities like this too." Young's own account of her feelings puts it bluntly: "In turning my daily work into a series of goals to be met and activities to be charted, it made me feel like a hamster on a wheel, and also, in some sense an object, rather than a subject, in my own life. The risk," Young postures, "is that we objectify the body, and thereby make a thing of ourselves."

Finally, a data-driven life can potentially remove our penchant for leisure, and destroy our sense of being present in the here and now. "With the advent of self-tracking, we increasingly feel compelled to give a reckoning of how we are spending every minute," Young says. "If you are determined to be fitter or more productive, at what point do the numbers and graphs tell you to relax and have some French fries?" In the same sense, self-tracking can give us the feeling of being absent: "Digital technology takes us out of being where we are. It creates this other sense of non-physical space. The challenge with this digital way of that it prevents us from being truly present. We are not attending to body, perception, and experience."

Societal Risks and the Need for Data Activism

In addition to the risks to our own individual well-being, the Collective Data Map presents risks to the well-being of society as a whole. The sensors that must permeate the physical world in order to track and collect our data can very quickly give way to surveillance. Jamais Cascio’s term for this world of constant self-observation: the Participatory Panopticon. Accoding to Young, he suggests that we would "use this monitoring to witness and share not just what we are doing but what others are doing, from monitoring police at demonstrations to calling up the exact words our spouse used on a particular occasion." At what point does data gathering become an invasion of our privacy?

Other issues abound. Will we be able to choose which data we contribute? "The line between the data we are actively choosing to make available and the data we are generating passively is blurring," warns Young. How will we regulate sensors that track things automatically? “Corporate Data Responsibility” is a term that Young argues will become more common as consumers become more concerned about how their data is being used. What rules will govern this new, dynamic data ecosystem? "How that information is stored, and who has access to it, has powerful, and even potentially dangerous, implications," says Young.

Young argues that, since the idea of Big Data is in its early stages, we still have the power to shape and govern how it will impact us. We need to be data activists, she argues, progressive and proactive about how our data will shape our own future. "Will we use [our data] for personal insight, and to build smarter, more sustainable communities, or will we use it for control, surveillance, and profit?" Referring to Facebook, she warns that "The degree of power it confers on a single company—a company with an active interest in collecting as much of our data as possible—is troubling." As Data Activists, we must retain the power to keep these companies in check.

Data Portability and its Rightful Home

Finally, this brings us to the issue of data ownership, and our right to move our data around as we see fit. Do we own it forever? Think about it: the companies that store and manage our Virtual Selves aren't necessarily going to be in business forever. Our virtual identities, then, are fallible. "Whole chunks of your logged life—all those photos you put on Flickr, the record of the places you checked into on Foursquare—could disappear one day," Young warns.

"Data portability", she explains, is all about our ability to pick up our data and take it elsewhere if we wanted to. The technical protocols should exist so that we "can easily move all of [our] information from one service to another. You will need to be the bearer of your data, and for it to be used effectively, you will need to get at it, move it, and recontextualize it in ways that suit your needs." It should be easy! Elias Bizannes of the DataPortability Project, draws an analogy to the financial system, which allows us to move our funds amongst banking institutions or different types of services.

Ultimately, the fight for the ownership and portability of our own data comes down to a fight for our rights. "We need to balance the business models of companies using our data, the social value of information, and most importantly, our rights," argued Young. We must "think of our data as something like our money, something we own by virtue of having generated it... [something that is] part of who we are as people, in the same way we think of our I.D. as a representation or documentation of who we are as individuals. The data we generate is then seen as a persistent, portable part of personal identity."

The final thought that I'll leave you with is that the debate that surrounds the Data Revolution is only just beginning. The more of us that's out there, the more intense the debate will be.

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