While largely about training horses, Allan Hamilton’s “Lead with your Heart” had some startling ideas about how we relate to new technology and the internet. It seems that in Hamilton’s mind, horse’s behavior is related to the fact that, in the wild, they are essentially prey. While a horse could easily trample us, it has over thousands of years seen itself as an animal of prey. Our approach to the horse must be as one who is non-threatening, moving in slowly and respecting the space of the animal, learning how to gently show our dominance of the animal with the respect it deserves. The thought that our behavior is, in a way, determined if we are predators or prey seems to have affected how we see ourselves on the internet and in social media. We frequently speak of internet predators that prey on children or the unsuspecting, uninitiated and yet, even knowing this, we seem unable to be aware and change our behavior. Each day brings more news of cyber-attack to businesses, but instead of taking action, many hide the problem and try to cover up the issue. In the wild, humans have the rare place of being both prey and predator. We can be killed and eaten as much as we can fight for survival. Somehow in the electronic frontier, we have dropped this ability to fight back, to realize that we are not babes in the woods but noble animals who deserve to be approached with respect.
It has been interesting watching the ever-growing value of a bitcoin and it causes me to pause and consider what it is about them we find so alluring. In a nod to previous precious commodities, bitcoins are not generated but are mined like gold, which as you may know was the backing for US currency until President Nixon took us off the gold standard in 1971. So we think of this cryptocurrency as we do gold or other precious metals or at least use language to give it that allure. Earlier, President Eisenhower passed a law that stated “In God, We Trust” in 1957 must appear on all currency. It seems that this is another step in the long, withdrawing roar, moving from belief to belief. Recently, in an interview, an expert in cryptocurrency said that people are putting their money and hope in bitcoin due to its ever-changing code- supposedly unbreakable and secure- more secure than government-backed securities or gold. It seems we have found a new impenetrable mystery in which to place our faith. While we move from God to Gold to code, I am reminded of a line from Lori Andersons “O Superman”
‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice
And when justice is gone, there’s always force
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!
Perhaps, today, when God is gone and Gold is gone, there is always code.
While listening to public radio, my ears perked up when I heard a story about how the first MP3 was created. It seems that in 1987, Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega was the first song that was compressed into what we now know as the current MP3. It seems that to create an MP3 the file is compressed and that some of the audio data is lost in the process. While the current technology seems to give us acceptable losses, there are losses none the less. Ryan Maguire’s Ghost in the MP3 project examines this lost information and presents this lost data as an oddly beautiful piece of music, a sort of phoenix from the ashes. In addition, our cell service is regularly flattened which has the effect of removing the emotion out of the voice we are listening to while supposedly reducing background noise, it also removes some of the emotional content of the voice- possibly one of the few remaining things that we have that computers can not yet replicate.
While these losses may seem insignificant, it reminds me of the poem by Martin Niemoller, “First They Came” how one by one the Nazis purged groups until there was no one left to protest when at last they came for the author, no one was left to hear his protests. What exactly are we compressing, do we know what we loose over the thundering goosestepping of technology. While I like to think we have learned from our mistakes if we wait too long our calls of protest will be devoid of emotion content in the interest of reducing the background noise.
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.
(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?
I find the Brexit strangely fascinating. Not only for the fact that one nation would be thinking about leaving this amazing union of countries but that the fact that a nation could remove itself from this community and in this era of information security it does give one pause to think, Having been a member of a group, how can one remove themselves and all the information that they feel was theirs? Now we all know a divorce can get ugly with people arguing over things but what about arguing about what you know or what you might have learned while you were together. Is it possible to say, this data is yours and this data is mine? And what about companies that are being broken apart after years as a single entity? The long tail teaches us that there is not an expiration on data if we keep our scope for metrics wide enough. We know it is impossible to un-see something and while things can be forgotten, how can we choose what we will forget and what we will remember. While we can easily delete information from our electronic data, we can’t do the same with our minds, And since we can delete and copy information so easily, what proof do we have that it will actually happen? Even more so, who would decide who gets what data? Can we give it a dollar value or is it too mercurial even to have a price attached to it. Perhaps, like Falstaff, we find no value in honor, though I doubt it.
I was thinking of artist mark Rothko the other day and in his book, “The Power of Art” Simon Schama describes how Rothko felt the visual expressiveness of figurative art had run its course and that now the only a new visual language could rouse us to the meaning of art, its power and proper place in our lives. This seems not dissimilar to the place we now find ourselves in relation to data and our connective internet consciousness. Perhaps data has we know it has run its course using the vocabulary that we has been created around it. It seems to have taken on a life of its own and will need an entirely new way to think of data and indeed our world. It makes me wonder, are we still trying to solve todays problems with yesterdays answers?