Long Data



I'm coming to the end of a full month on the road in Europe giving a series of talks (videos of some available here), all of which have revolved in some way around aspects of data in our lives. I've talked about how our behavioral data is being captured and stitched together in slightly Frankenstein-like ways, data as an interpretive layer through which we increasingly experience important cultural touchpoints, and data's influence on creativity, to name a few. 

A central thread in these discussions has been the fact that we understand very little still about how data is being used, will be used, it's impact on our own interactions with each other, and what the half-life of data will be—what I referred to as Long Data. As Brad Templeton, a fellow presenter at one event put it, "We don't yet know the sins of the future." More broadly speaking, we don't yet know the full implications of the data generation and collection we are so busily enabling and enacting. This is less a call to not do it at all, and more of a call to take the time to map out the possibilities—positive and negative alike, of immersing ourselves in a bath of data. As the Internet of Things envelopes our living environments, which it will do in coming years, how data is collected, analyzed, fused and isolated—in and, more likely, out of context—will massively shape our social, cultural, political and commercial behaviors in ways we have only seen shadows of thus far. 

A few questions I ended the talk at Next Berlin with focused on these very issues. In fact, a week after that talk, the last item on the list moved front and center in European discussions of how we treat our data through a court decision around the right to be forgotten in Google search data

The questions I left the audience with were (with a little elaboration here): 

  • How will these models [of behavioral data collection] look to people with different levels of power and values? Will the treat everyone the same, or create new forms of discrimination and control, as well as enforce existing ones?
  • What will it be like to live in a post-choice world? When so many decisions are forecasted in advance, how free from influence of algorithms will our decisions be? 
  • To what extent will we perform for the data? Will we bend to the shape of the algorithms before they are adapted to natural behaviors?
  • What are the implications of Long Data? How will interpretations of our actions yet to be derived impact what we do today?
  • How will we exercise the right to be forgotten, or not seen at all?  Can we opt out of being data? Will doing so be seen as reasonable, or an abnormality? 

We are a long way still from answering these, and the list of questions will grow longer. I plan to follow these individual topics down their respective rabbit holes in greater detail in my work in coming months. If you're interested in exploring them as well, let's talk.