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.
(Many thanks to Mr. Michael (Fletch) Reed for being a guest blogger this week)
Last week, Vizio was hit with a $2.2 million fine for collecting information about the viewing habits of people who used their televisions. Vizio not only collected the information but sold it to third parties. This aggregation and selling of data are not new. Google and Facebook make it a part of their license agreements that they will do this which is common in the industry to spell out what is being collected. However, in this case, Vizio was secretly collecting the data while the consumer was completely unaware that this was happening. This is patently wrong and a violation of the consumer’s privacy.
I have a friend who works in the development group at a software company. (Let’s call the company MFC). MFC collects information about people who use their software but allows the users to opt out if they chose to do so. Additionally, the information MFC collects is solely about the usage of MFC’s software to allow the company to decide which features to invest in and to determine what features are lagging in use.
What is the key difference between Vizio and MFC? The developers at MFC actually decided which information would help them make decisions about the usage of the software and the software only. There was little to no input from the marketing and sales departments. The developers exercised a level of restraint and ethics. But how common is this in the software industry if Vizio was collecting the information on the sly?
Other professional groups such as lawyers, doctors, and accountants have a code of ethics in place. Shouldn’t software developers be held accountable, be required to maintain a set of ethics to safeguard the consumer’s privacy?
Having never seen “Seinfeld” it was explained once as “a show about nothing”. In a time when we can spend hours looking at Facebook or Twitter and accomplish nothing, it seems understandable how nothing can go on for nine seasons. Oddly enough I thought about this when listening to The Art of (Cyber) War on NPR. Whereas the question as to whether or not to go to war used to be based on what someone did to us, Pearl Harbor for example, now we seem to be making that judgment on the need for a preemptive strike, get them before they can get us. This gets rather complicated in the realm of cyber war as how can one prove the intent to do harm before it has been done? What constitutes “something” in intent in a cyber attack. What would be the threshold to constitute the attack and which possible attack would require retribution? Sony Pictures was hacked, something not judged to be worthy of retaliation but while the evidence mounts that the elections were tampered with, if not in actual votes but in the perception of the candidates, do we not find a response to be in our national interests? While I am not suggesting that we should rain down an electronic firestorm at the least provocation, it does seem that now is the time that we need to begin to look at these questions and set some guidelines as to how to respond. We have an idea of what would constitute an attack, isn’t it time we gave serious thought to our response or will we wait and find ourselves responding to something that could be about nothing.
Recently, we have been discussing the idea of computer code as language and the ramifications that may have for us as humans in the digital age. The movie “Arrival” also dealt with the limitations of language, for those who haven’t yet seen the movie, which I recommend highly, one of the points of the movie is that language forms the way we see the world (brilliantly addressed in Yana Schottenstein’s article “How the Language You Speak Affects Your Worldview”) and basically can determine our relation to the world that we describe and live in. I couldn’t help but take this idea and bring it to the idea of a computer language and wonder; Do people who write code begin to see the world differently because they are using a different language paradigm to describe what they see? Now to be clear, the word Expressive means that it’s easy to write code that’s easy to understand, both for the compiler and for a human reader. That doesn’t address the descriptive quality of the computer language, nor how languages influence and dictates our world view. Verbs must exist as do qualifications, if-then questions, choices, and consequences. Is it possible then that a communication between programmer and computer could describe the world that would be unrecognizable to a non-code literate person? I remember in Carl Sagans, “Cosmos”, Sagan stating that computers could communicate at such a speed as to discuss the entirety of current human knowledge in an instant, and when asked by a human what they were saying could only reply,”Nothing” as they could have no way to explain it to us. Perhaps we may find that not only can we not speak at their speed but we are looking at a completely different world. Not a world of colour and things but a world of 0’s and 1’s.
I am a big fan of Ernie Kovacs – (please look him up on YouTube if you don’t know his work or look at the video below) an amazing pioneer in Television who really shook up the visual medium of early television and make people look at in a whole new light. I am thinking about Ernie and all the other pioneers who have played with the boundaries of any medium Picasso, Schoenberg, James Joyce, Rod Serling even the recordings of Ken Nordine or Nichols and May. I wonder what will we do with this new medium of social media that we have created. What new horizons are we waiting to be explored and what creative outlet will we find with all this senseless technology or have we lost the ability to have fun ? Where is the court jester of this electronic Camelot?