Op-Ed Column

Ethical Design in the Orwellian Commons

Choosing the right approach to personal data versus big data

Joe Honton
JavaScript Fanboi
Published in
8 min readApr 5, 2021
“Churning” © Joe Honton

This world is being assembled, in bits and pieces, from our interactions with technology: the tracking and surveillance of our movements; the communications and transactions of our commerce; the words and pictures of our inner circle; the desires and fears of our search for knowledge; and even the patterns and habits of our free time.

This is a dark thought, perhaps one that we’d rather not contemplate. And yes it’s uncomfortable — it reveals that we haven’t been thinking deeply enough about the work we do, that we haven’t been capturing, measuring and evaluating the metrics of technology’s by-products, and the harms it can cause.

And worse, it’s uncomfortable because it’s not us versus them. It’s just us — designers, marketers, engineers, and all the rest of us building out this new age of information.

But I believe it’s not too late to stop the march if we start to act with deliberate intent.

How we came to glorify big data

In 2008 researchers at Google announced that they could predict the occurrence of influenza by analyzing the pulse of search terms coursing through their servers. This intriguing experiment was one in a long line of modeling efforts by statisticians using data captured from unwitting participants. But because of its apparent beneficial nature, it became the poster child for big data.

We reveled in its glory. It gave us license to imagine all sorts of other experiments that could be conducted with data that was otherwise going fallow. Suddenly everybody was capturing, storing, and trading this new commodity called data.

And today all of that data is being hurled at machine learning and artificial intelligence with no thought given to its potential side effects.

It all starts innocently enough:

  • We directly fill in forms requesting basic information about ourselves.
  • We research things that are important to us.
  • We use a credit card or electronic wallet to purchase something.



Joe Honton
JavaScript Fanboi

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