|This is data. It says something.|
What, I wonder?
It's worth taking a look if you have the stomach for such things.
It’s about social manipulation. It’s about behavioural shift.
It’s brilliant, and it is terrifying.
It suggests that there has been a tipping point reached – a position achieved through demand for convenience and a desire for individual celebrity.
Chillingly (pun partially intended) it speaks of a system that is now shaping the way people behave, or pretend to behave, in order to avoid discrimination. Everything is fact. Every word said, product bought, Google searched, is attributable to the individual. The machine knows this and takes every update as an opportunity to colour in any open space.
Although, broadly speaking, concepts of privacy and the intrusion of a nefarious overarching “other” are not new.
Of course, many would expect that that would be my position – after all, I wrote Erasure.
I’ve been asked on numerous occasions about big data, and what it might mean. The first enquiries came about immediately after I self-published Erasure in 2012. People were scared. Erasure was (and inexplicably still is by main-stream publishers) considered high-concept and borderline science fiction. Yet there isn’t a single line of pretty machine code or nerd-fuelled rant to be seen. Instead, the protagonists are just people whose lives are affected by big-data.
At its heart Erasure is a murder/whodunit that is played out in bars and shady coffee houses and motels.
The characters could be anyone with an internet connection and a credit card.
They could be you.
I don’t milk the whole “mysterious prophetic writer” angle as much as I probably should – and I really should – books don’t sell themselves after all, and Erasure predates Snowden blowing his whistle by a year. At publishing time, even Julian Assange was yet knock on the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge to ask if he could stay a while.
Additionally, and it might be my demeanour, but people seem to get irked by my standard response:
“Privacy doesn’t mean what we think it does anymore. If you shop with a credit card, have looked anything up on a search engine, own any kind of mobile phone (smart or dumb), there is no real privacy that can be claimed as stolen. Privacy, or what you think is privacy, is a myth.”
People hate it. That response, I mean. Privacy for so long has been sacrosanct. An apparently inviolable contract that stated that there was a separation between our public and private lives.
Until we signed new contracts. Even if we didn’t mean to.
With this new contract, “privacy” now extends beyond the moral and physical horizon of the individual. People will lose their minds should private photograph be made public. The shaming of the subject often coming from a base of fear that such public displays of physicality might happen to the viewer. Yet, day by day, the digital picture we agree to collate by delivering our most private thoughts to some giant nexus of data is perfectly fine… apparently.
And that’s the kicker. All those subtleties create a digital image that is far more intimate than a photo of an errant nipple or sexual demonstration that happened that that time you thought that the light in the hotel room kind of demanded a show.
I’m not attempting to diminish those who have had trust abused, or had some perverted revenge levelled at them by the unauthorised distribution of private happy snaps. But, such images represent such a brief period of a person’s time. A moment. One of (hopefully) millions of moments in one person’s life.
However, while viewers of a photograph might assume or create their own narrative about the individual/s depicted, such opinions are (at very best) a guess.
A photo shows what someone looks like. But, for real intimacy, a collated, targeted, data-set, tells the audience exactly who an individual is.
And it isn’t static.
It grows, and reforms with every interaction.
It is the culmination of ALL moments, and the assumptions that are made can be tested and proven through subtle contacts in the ever-broadening realm that the term “media” now seems unable to succinctly resolve.
The situation is all bit sneaky; a bit … “backround-ey”. But, even though the results of all the collecting and collating and manipulating and selling are demonstrable, for the most part the results are also often really convenient.
And feel a little bit magic.
“Oh Facebook! I was just searching for cheap flights to that place on Google. It’s a bit creepy that you know that, but … I’ll just take a look.”
And, sometimes, very private.
“Oh Google! I know I searched for intimate items a couple of weeks ago. But I’m not sure our relationship is now one where you can send me such a flagrantly titillating ad for that site I almost bought some stuff from. I mean… I’ll take a look, but a little privacy wouldn’t go astray. OH, that sparkly thing is on sale!”
Just like that, the viewer (even one who has, to that point, resisted the crashing tide of constant marketing) might click the go button.
In doing so they engage in a behaviour that is a tacit acceptance that, while feeling inexplicably unpleasant about it, they are okay with being marketed to.
They are okay that this information is going somewhere to be processed.
They have participated.
Their dossier is just that little bit more complete.
And that’s just one pool of data that can be fished from. Add credit cards, phone tracking, smart devices that literally listen to everything you say (they have to, how else can your device know when to respond to voice commands if they aren’t listening?) and things get more interesting.
Previously useless data can now be collected, if only to be stacked somewhere – made available when a data miner works how it adds to the picture of you, and how that might aid in controlling what you buy or where you work and how you might be insured.
Scary? Probably. If you find such things scary. But I bet you aren’t so scared as to burn your credit cards and shut off all your devices and demand cash in an envelope from your employer every week.
Such would be the level of change required.
However, even though these concepts of social and individual manipulation are coming to the fore, so are new concepts of resistance – like the site sent to me that inspired this rant.
But, how do we resist when everything we do relies on a connection to the very thing that we suspect is abusing our trust?
Or is this just how it is now?
Should we just wave it away as social evolution – some amalgamation of Huxley’s brave new world of edutainment, and an Orwellian commercial enterprise that demands to know all?
Drawing a really long bow (I am a fiction writer after all): Is the resultant dossier of life a virtual living thing, now locked in a data-vault for all time?
Further, as Erasure’s narrator asks: What might this eternal memory mean if, perhaps, we are fundamentally designed to be forgotten?
I’d ask Google… but…