Who’s Brent Spiner? Oh: The Problem With Getting Stuck On Data.


Way back in 1890, a couple of dudes who no one particularly remembers published a paper declaring “to be let alone” a basic human right. They titled it, self-evidently enough, The Right to Privacy.

The claim had been prompted by the shock of “recent inventions and business methods” that had turned the goddamn world upside down. These were, obviously, the instantaneous photograph and the contemporary newspaper enterprise, and these “mechanical devices” were going to prove “that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’” Since then the population of the United States has grown from around 70M to a low estimate of 295M, and the flood of technology has left us with nowhere but the roof-tops to stand, and so, friends, here we are.

Privacy doesn’t exist. Not really, you know? As Blake Shaw of Foursquare recently told an indignant audience at a Columbia University-sponsored panel, “privacy is a modern invention.” Our concept of individual space is closely tied to things like population growth, religious freedom, personal wealth, and Western individualism.  Think about the living conditions of ancient humans. Houses (if they existed at all) were tiny and cramped and whole families lived together in one central room.

But when Western Civilization scooched over the Atlantic and suddenly there was all this open space, and all this potential for getting paid, and the idea of the Self-Made Man emerged, it created a whole, pun intended, New World. Suddenly humans could spread out and be alone and all it took was some good ol’  American Know-How. Even then, though, it was still only the wealthy who practiced privacy as we understand it. Most people were still poor and cramped and out in the open. But the seed had been planted, and pretty soon the Right to Privacy was as engrained in the common sentiment as were other wacky concepts like the Freedom of Speech and Religion and the Right to Bear Arms that most other humans alive in the middle of the 19th century—and still many today—would have balked at as well.

Fast forward a hundred years or so, and The United Nations seems to think that, at least in some ways, #BigData can solve some of the more cumbersome issues that arise from this whole, fucking, Life thing we’ve been trying on. Following that huge shitstorm in 2008, the UN started Global Pulse, an initiative which aims to turn all the massive amounts of information we’re generaiting into a safe-guard system for the planet.

See, the idea is that there’s a lot of shit going on that, historically, doesn’t get noticed till it becomes, well, history, right? That’s because it takes a fairly long time to get perspective on all the personal accounts and financial records and government intelligence reports and 50-year climate indices and all that super boring stuff that nerds love to analyze and argue about and publish and prove and debunk and, then, who the fuck cares? Nerds! They love that shit. To avoid a mouthful, they came up with a fancy scientific way to say it all: latent assemblage of quantifiable variables (not an actual term) that is: ‘data’. This shit is nothing new—obviously, granted—but it needs to be said.

What has changed is the amount of time it takes to put it all together and analyze. That’s good. That means that the UN can know which regions of which country are about to need food since people there keep Tweeting stuff like “Fuck I’m hungry! #LifeSucks,”, or if there’s about to be an outbreak of some potential pandemic since, like, a bunch of people all searched WebMD for the same symptoms. All good things, right? The downside, of course, is that since it doesn’t take a whole generation or three to clock the world’s ups and downs, all the people involved are still alive. Unlike the traditional approach to historical research (i.e. “Let’s find out why all those people had super shitty lives back then”), the new #BigData model hopes to be preventative, predictive. So we call this: Real-Time Data Gathering. A.K.A.: The constant surveillance of living human beings.

To many of these humans—often using logic when contemplating the potentialities inherent here—this sounds uncool. Global crisis prevention be damned; that’s some Big Brother type of shit to a degree that George Orwell couldn’t possibly have imagined. But, anyway, here we are.

Of course there are potentially huge violations that would be possible in a society that keeps tabs on all its citizens. Certainly. Like, if shit were to get hairy there’d be zero chance for clandestine rebellion. Plus, if data and trend analysis were used in law enforcement one could totally imagine some Minority Report sort of deal which could determine if somebody’s recent behaviors implied a high-probability of #FutureCrime.

But then, say the sensors in Grandma’s phone detected a hip-shattering shift in her movements on a rainy day, followed by a prolonged horizontal tendency. The thing could not only send out an emergency call detailing the probability that Nana had slipped off a slick curb on her way home from Luby’s, but also put out a blanket S.O.S. in case any qualified First Responders happened to be enjoying the chicken fried steak buffet right then.

It’s not all big and grand noble stuff, of course. Data is the 2012 summer jam  because it’s sort of like the Holy Grail for companies that dig making money. The fact is that the more companies know about us, the more products they can make that are guaranteed to sell. Successful products usually fill some kind of need—as debatable as the origin of that need is— in our lives. Whether it’s knowing if that can of delicious Coors Golden Banquet is cold without needing to touch it, or having an unbelievably powerful portable computer/GPS/gaming console/personal assistant/infinite encyclopedia/camera in our damn pockets that we can also use to tap into invisible waves of magic and initiate omniglobal vocal interfacing with homies, the need is fulfilled.

Genome from Yahoo! from The Nation on Vimeo.

Yes. Many of these products are cutesy iterations at best. Some are less than worthless, but—as I’ve said before—we are brand new at this, guys. In order for technology to progress—at least in our current system—it needs to be monetized. Companies are trying to figure that out. What we might do, though, is vocalize our boundaries and make sure that our data is being used in our best interests. It can be.

Like, a few years ago I was dating this one babe who went to Cali for New Year’s. I, obviously, stayed in New York during one of the more wintery winters in recent memory. Snowmaggedon aside, it wasn’t all that bad. Except, this: Before said babe ditched for the Golden State Advantage she sent me a textvitation to join something called Google Latitude, a social geolocation app that would cause me endless fits of angst and misery over the following two weeks spent effectively snow-bound in my shitty Bed-Stuy pad.

I suppose the whole idea is that, like, say you and your bros are all super tight together and hang all the time and so figure that if y’all always know when a homie encroaches—like some sort of social Spidey-Sense—well, bonus! Hang time anytime. Or if you’re an overbearing loving parent and your kid is a delinquent free-spirit, you can keep GPS tabs on them to make sure they hate you till you die don’t skip class and ultimately thank you for the TLC when they’re old enough to appreciate your hardshiphow totally nuts you are.

The fact that social apps are so prevalent now is no fluke. People, generally, want to feel like they belong—to something—whether it be the cool-kids club in high school or the even cooler “we’re notthe cool kids” club, also in high school, but then later behind the counters of bars and MacBook screens.

Even if we spend the majority of our time alone, social media gives us the metrics for self-satisfaction, and as these e-clubs have flooded the app stores, a wave of spin-offs have crested. Services likeHighlight  and Sonar scrape little bits from all of our various data-holes and aim to connect us with potential homies.  With Highlight you get a notification every time another Highlighter with mutual friends or common interests is in some determined vicinity. Of course, with the lax way that most people employ the Add Friend and Like buttons, it’s really a crap-shoot on how common or mutual these things are. Mostly I’ve been notified because some rando nearby also Liked Battlestar Galactica,Ted Talks, or you. And with the 647 acquaintances on my FB, the likelihood of us connecting over mutuals for reals is slim, bro. But as we heard at WWDC, Apple’s upcoming iOS 6 will have a Find My Friends feature—and Facebook is dropping the Find Friends Nearby tool—that could prove more right on with direct access to our contacts (For example. I just found out that a dude who I grew up with in Austin now also lives in Brooklyn, we share 62 friends and I had no idea he was here). Though these may stir up some awkward moments when our mutual friend is related to the Melanie GirlAtBar or Daisy OkCupid family trees in our Contacts.

Then there’s the recently debuted Coordinate service from good old Google which aims to kill the Pizza Boy Porn Genre by enabling employers to keep constant tabs on their remote workforce:

“Did you order the sausage?”

“I did call for a five letter word that starts with a P, but I was ho—“

“Seriously, lady, if I’m here for more than two minutes my electro-collar sends out 200 volts right under my head.”

“But you’re not wearing a collar.”

“Oh, yes I am…”

Yo! So some of this sends off all kinds of alarm bells, given its ability to incite relentlessly wack breaches of our personal bubbles—see: Girls Around Me , an app which was to stalkers-slash-date-rapists what Keystone Light is to frat-boys-slash-date-rapists—but we’re new to this game. Kids growing up today won’t remember getting their Facebook because their parents have been using it as a scrapbook since they were born. Also, those same parents will likely have been using digital leashes like FBI Child ID, Footprints, and Glympse since the brats were old enough to need a phone of their own (you know: five). They’ll be so used to the idea of broadcasting their lives that, by the time they’re old enough to have real friends, sharing those permissions could become the new friendship bracelet. We’d call it #BroCasting.

Eventually, when everyone is on the map in real-time, turning off your signal could be tantamount to cruising a big white van with curtained windows around your local school zone. Which brings me to what I’m gonna call The Black Box Effect of Radical Transparency. Just like it sounds, there would be a record for every moment. The Internet would become the world’s most big-mouthed tattle tale. No more unsolved hit and runs, cheating on your spouse would be a real pain in the ass, and Peeping Toms would find that the peeper had become the peeped. Now, while would-be offenders could just leave their phones at home, that’s assuming that these technologies stay in our phones. With the trends in wearable tech and sensor everything, the chances of GPS trackers migrating to our skivvies are high indeed. Unless yon John Wayne Gacy plans on prowling in the buff, he totes won’t be getting around to those home improvements any time soon.

We just live in opaque boxes, and most of our private time is spent sleeping. But if someone were interested in learning everything there is to know about you, it would be wildly easy. Not only in a freaky CIA sort of sense, but with the integration of Social across Internet media, we increasingly put that shit out there for free. On Hulu a box asks you “What are you thinking?” even as another box on your Facebook Timeline populates with what are you watching. On Spotify we get what are you listening to, and with Instagram we go even further to what are you seeing. But does anybody really care about what most of us do with our time? There will always be people watchers, but eventually, as we get more used to the freaky union of our cyber and meat spaces, nobody will care about the constant feed of updates on what people are watching, listening to, or doing just right then. Does anybody really pay attention to that stuff anyway?

Like some geezer being all stumped by that wacky enigma, the personal computer, the next generations will leave us all looking just as confounded and obsolete. When we were kids the common wisdom was, like, why don’t y’all kids respect your elders more since they’ve got all this wisdom and shit and we were, like, “OMG, mom! If grandpa wants to share his stories he should start a LiveJournal like the rest of us. Duh!”

Now, before you get on my case here, I’m no Elderist bigot. My point is that it’s no longer the technology itself that will leave us in the dust long before we bite it. From now on it’ll be the different ways people choose to use existing technology. We won’t be going to community colleges to learn what those kids mean by “right-click”. More like we’d be going to group seminars on being more comfortable with data-nudity. Since, like, how Emily Nussbaum so eloquently put it in this New York Mag feature:

“Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry—for God’s sake, their dirty photos!—online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention—and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtual stage to another.”

But, hey, que viva the future, right? Bet on those wacky assholes of the future broadcasting their geolocation from every Taco Bell in the world. Because that’s what’s up with the future. We can call itRadical Transparency for now, and then likely some portmanteau like RadTran, but eventually they’ll just call it Life. Much like we call this ‘Life’ even though it’s an Orwellian nightmare scenario, Code Red, that our parents spent their lives fighting hopelessly against.


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