Oli Frost is my hero. He decided that he had gotten tired of giving his personal data away for companies to profit from so he decided to download his own data and putting it up for auction on eBay to the highest bidder. The highest bidder will get a flash drive of his personal data and the profit from the sale will be donated to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It seems that while people have no issue with giving our data away for profit, and we are encouraged to give blood, though there is an issue with selling our selves (prostitution) or even our body parts while they are alive. Case in point, search eBay for live kidney and there are no results but search for shrunken head (no- really. Try it) and you are met with more than 20 results. Interesting that it would be acceptable that we should give away the moments that make up our lives, even our life’s blood in many cases for the profit of others but our selling ourselves in whole or part would be taboo.
Of course, you know the old story, to boil a frog, you don’t drop it into a pot of boiling water but put it in cool water and slowly turn up the temperature to boiling. The same seems true of the ongoing debates over privacy and net neutrality. Lulled into a false sense of security or blinded by naiveté, we allow corporations to mine who we are and what we choose to treat us like horses with blinders on, seeing only what they want us to see, and now we want to give them the ability to fast track the online content of their choice while allowing other content to linger in the slow lane. It seems odd that the same legal bodies, corporations, that created the financial crisis in the savings and loan and mortgage industry, not to mention the opioid crisis in this country now want to create a world where they control our access to information for their personal gain. In an economy where the bottom line is at best the shareholder (or more frequently the executives) payout, why should we think our best interests are a concern. The entire point of the internet seemed to be to allow everyone accesses to knowledge for the betterment of all. If we allow our access to the free flow of information to be restricted, we will be no better than frogs in warm bath water on the stove.
It was surprising to me to hear when a friend of mine had taken a job driving for Uber. Now there is nothing wrong with driving for Uber, I was surprised as my friend and I had met in college and I thought him a smart man and good student, talents not so much in demand as an Uber driver. It seems this electronic revolution, will have the same effect as the industrial revolution only on a larger scale. While the industrial revolution took skilled laborers and reduced them to a cog in an assembly line, this computer revolution seems to be doing the same for every worker. It seems that there is no skill that cannot be replaced, revised or in some way significantly downsized by computers and automation. Just as skilled craftsmen and blacksmiths were relegated to endlessly executing the same task, now college educated people are finding their jobs behind the wheel of the cars that the first revolution made possible.
They say now we are teaching our children skills for jobs that do not yet exist so that they can be ready for what is to come. Let us hope we are not giving them all driving licenses for an age of driverless cars.
A few years ago I came across a book, “The Illumination” by Kevin Brockmeier poses the question, what if our pain were the most beautiful thing about us. What if that which we seem to give little value were the source of our greatest beauty. This devaluation of a resource seems to be the story that many companies want to tell us about the data that we freely give them access our internet searches. Every search, shopping cart, web page we look at is regularly recorded, tracked and collated to give the meta-data that companies use to so that they can make data-based predictions about our behavior, our buying habits and sell us things before we know that we need them. All of this data comes from us and we give it freely but what if we didn’t? What if, as consumers, we realized the value of what we leave behind us in our data exhaust. As technology companies continue to try to find a way to monetize content what would happen if the sources of the data began to ask for their fair share of the pie. How would companies react when site users realize that our data exhaust is the most valuable thing about us and ask to be compensated for the diamonds we currently leave in the dust.
While thinking about Moore’s Law, you may remember, it states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years, with the second law being that cost would fall with each new development, I was reminded of a passage from “Big Data” by Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier about the growth of information and the ability to share it. From the advent of Arabic numerals, writing, print and so forth it seems that the pace of our ability to share and manipulate data has been getting faster not unlike Moore’s Law. The world that most of us grew up in is very different from the world that we are living in now and will, no doubt, look much different in the future. How are we to understand and relate to the world that may be changing faster than our ability to understand it. Motion picture film moves at 24 frames per second that transform single images into a fluid moving image. Will our technology begin to move so fast that the single now is transformed into a rapidly disappearing past, beyond our understanding or realization?
Recently I heard about an NPR podcast how computers are now using big data to make predictions about our behavior. This may mean tracking the number of cars in a shopping center parking lot to see how it correlates with activities or sales in the mall. It seems that computers can watch what we do, make a prediction as to our behavior and market to us to satisfy our need before we know what we need or want. As soon as companies can begin to predict our behavior they will be there to market to us for profit. It seems that our only way for people to hold on to our humanity will be to be unpredictable. Our constancy seems to be something that will turn us into machines that the machines we create will understand.
When I was growing up outside of Chicago, I often went into the Loop to look at the architecture, see a movie or the latest show at the Art Institute. One particularly cold winter I remember my winter coat had had a rather tough time of it, after falling in slushy snow on several occasions and truth be told, I looked rather rough, knit hat pulled down to my eyebrows and proudly showing that first bit of beard. The cold and wind made me take refuge in a new lifestyle brand clothing store that had just opened. I was just warming up when I noticed a clerk who seemed to have no other job than to follow me around the store. Everywhere I went he made sure that he was in my gaze, making it clear that I was not welcome there. This made me so uncomfortable that I soon decided the arctic Chicago weather was better than the clerk’s cold gaze.
This came back to me while reading Joseph Turow’s “The Isles Have Eyes”, a fascinating new book on big data’s effect on retailing and the future of sales in general. It seems that retailers are now tracking our transactions both through our purchases and in the store via facial recognition to create a live buyer persona to project our needs and try to fulfill them before we reach the checkout isle. While a frequent buyers program can give discounts, Turow proposes that a store could tailor your experience to the store’s needs and perception of who you are and how your presence fits into their brand. For example, if you shop at that store only occasionally but spend a lot of money the store may want to woo you. Once the store recognizes you with facial recognition, they may alert a clerk to your presence, have them approach you with suggestions all based on your buying history. They may also have other information about you, say family names or photos from social media or a recent promotion from trade papers or press- all to ensure your return to their store. While this may be a bit creepy, the opposite is even worse. Let’s say a stores database decides you are not their demographic for whatever reason. A store clerk could be sent to shadow you around the store and if deemed necessary, even call security and remove you. All from the data that has been gathered about you, whether you know it or not. It seems that in the future we can be discriminated against not only for how we appear physically but electronically.