Meditations on personal data trails
How cool is it to learn that some half-baked thoughts I’ve been intermittently returning to are in fact shared by complete strangers?
Thursday, in an email back-and-forth with a friend, I wrote:
The density and specificity of the data trail we all produce in an increasingly wired, ubicomp world is a nearly constant back-burner preoccupation for me — I’m both massively creeped out by what capital and power most certainly wants to do with it and intensely interested in what us peasants might do with it if we learn to claim for ourselves and leverage the data we produce.
Activists have encouraged people to “vote with their wallets” for years; why couldn’t this be extended to include who knows how many varieties of the data we are now producing? Google, Facebook et al are raking in billions on top of our clicks, our “time on page,” the precise circumstances of our decision to “bounce” from a website we’ve lost interest in. That of course is just a tiny piece of what can be tracked/measured in exact detail — they’ve got our “social graph,” our locations, what/when/where/how often we buy things, blah blah. The upside — the potential for growth — in all sorts of business models lies in collecting the data we produce and locating opportunities within it.
Well, that’s my fucking data. My online identity, growing ever richer and more nuanced and three-dimensional. I’m not getting rich off it. Which is fine with me, as long as it’s clear that I own it and am free to choose who gets to use it, to what end, and for how long. I’ll trade the dollar value of that data for other kinds of value — environmental concessions, social justice, quality of life, etc.; I’ll trade for a degree of control (asserted through collective action) over the world I live in. But I’m not inclined to give it away for baubles or whiskey or smallpox-infested blankets.
I don’t know if human beings really have the capacity to demand control over their data streams and manage them in a way that reflects their values and priorities. But it’s one of those possibilities that I hang on to, out of need of hope that we’re not, as a species, just accelerating toward the buffalo jump.
And then the very next evening I find — via none other than Tim O’Reilly — a blog post by a writer / web thinker named Venessa Miemis, who’s clearly shared some of my preoccupations: Why the Online Identity and Data Ownership Debate Matters. Excerpt:
We have multiple accounts and multiple levels of relationships within and across those social networks. When we click around on sites we are leaving a trail of ‘digital exhaust’, defining our habits, preferences, curiosities, and explorations. We don’t have control/access/ownership of this data, but 3rd parties do. Each of these pieces, and all the contextual information around it, is INCREDIBLY VALUABLE, but currently fragmented, fractured, and scattered. Shouldn’t we have access to it ALL, so we can connect the dots and make effecitve and meaningful choices?
Why can’t I just export my data, activity, and relationships from each service, and be in control of who gets to see it, which parts they get to access, and how they use it once I give them permission?
Why isn’t there an easy way for me to have an overview of everything about me, and be able to selectively share information about myself, my interests, my capacities, my needs, or my resources?
Go read it — great links, great discussion in comments, even a perfectly on-point video embed from The Onion.
Its moments such as this that keep feeding my hope that the Internet can and will eventually make the world a better place. Only connect!