Too Much Information

Is Our Data Really About Us?

There are many, many people who know more than I do about data collection, storage, and use in this modern super-connected world we have made for ourselves. Many who are able to hold stronger opinions, present better arguments, and work through positive and negative assumptions more fully than I am. So I won’t bore you with an article that even pretends to the level of Rick Smolan’s and Jennifer Erwitt’s compilation of quality essays and photography in The Human Face of Big Data. Neither will I dive deep into the dark world of surveillance or targeted monitoring and manipulation of beliefs and behaviors as Walter Kirn provided in his piece for the Atlantic last November, If You’re Not Paranoid, You’re Crazy.

What I will offer is a series of questions surrounding a central discussion topic: is there ever a point at which collected information regarding our persons — our behavior, our choices, our beliefs, our relationships, our vocabularies, our dreams, our desires, our failures — ceases to help us overcome challenges, and instead becomes onerous as it is used for manipulating any and all of us to exist in certain, prescriptive ways? That is:

  • If everything about you is tracked, logged, stored, and used to target you with messages, how do you know that your beliefs are yours?
  • How do you know yourself, when the stuff of you-ness has been abstracted from you?
  • Is the “you” that is stored in a thousand servers actually true of you? Do you want it to be?

It is distinctly human to know and to be known. Our bodies, minds, and our languages allow us the ability to experience life in relationship. In fact, we talk about ourselves almost entirely (using the English language here, because I am most familiar with it) in relational terms. With words like introvert, leader, helpful, angry, mean, inspirational, love, hate — we describe ourselves in comparison to others. One is hardly ever angry without being angry at, or perhaps on behalf of, someone else. Neither is one an introvert without the presence of other people to be introverted toward.

These words, our categories of human personality, along with our own experiences of relationships with other people are all dependent on intimate knowledge. They combine the autonomy of the the individual, the self, with the inevitability of self-as-communal. To exist is to engage with other people. Aloneness and humanness are opposing ideas.

At the same time, we are taught to prize our uniqueness, our individuality. We fight to distinguish ourselves from one another, but never to the extreme that we become alienated, un-relatable. In order to be known as unique, we need counterparts within our community to know us and with whom we can be appropriately compared.

So what happens when most every aspect of our personality is tracked, grouped, assessed, and used to predict our development over time?

  • Is it human to be known in this way?
  • Is being so very known about at all corollary to being known?
  • If we are dissected and indexed in such extreme, minute ways, are we truly persons anymore?
  • What are all of the positive and negative consequences of all this data gathering?
  • Does societal knowledge and awareness of the fact that we are being watched and recorded in a hundred ways at any moment alter our behavioral patterns?
  • Does the normative inescapability of the monitoring alter our conceptions of who we are?
  • If all of the devices that are recording our behavior were less invisible, less hidden, would we be as passive about the passive data gathering that follows our every move?
If you’re using a free online service, the adage goes, you are the product. It’s an arresting line, but one that deserves putting more precisely: it’s not you, but your behavioural data and the quantifiable facts of your engagement that are constantly blended for sale, with the aggregate of every single interaction (yours included) becoming a mechanism for ever-more-finely tuning the business of attracting and retaining users. — Tom Chatfield

We define categories of good, of valuable, of meaningful, of social, of relational within community and cultural contexts. We equivocate and justify our apathy toward things that we might otherwise see as negative. Our filters for processing worth the risk and worth the cost are often managed in terms of personal convenience. We carry smartphones because to not do so would be inconvenient — a hardship that seems more costly than the passive, pocket-sized monitoring of our moments. But is it?

How human are we when we no longer need relationships to be so completely known?

Read Other, Smarter People Who Write About Humanity, Data, Tracking

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