A theme of my writing over the past ten or so years has been the role of data in society. I tend to frame that role anthropologically: How have we adapted to this new element in our society? What tools and social structures have we created in response to its emergence as a currency in our world? How have power structures shifted as a result?
(image) Today I had a chance to testify to the US Senate on the subject of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and data privacy. It was an honor, and a bit scary, but overall an experience I’ll never forget. Below is the written testimony I delivered to the Commerce committee on Sunday, released on its site today. If you’d like to watch, head right here, I think it’ll be up soon. Forgive the way the links work, I had to consider that this would be printed and bound in the Congressional Record. I might post a shorter version that I read in as my verbal remarks next…we’ll see.
God, “innovation.” First banalized by undereducated entrepreneurs in the oughts, then ground to pablum by corporate grammarians over the past decade, “innovation” – at least when applied to business – deserves an unheralded etymological death.
It’s somehow fitting that today, May 25th, marks my return to writing here on Searchblog, after a long absence driven in large part by the launch of NewCo Shift as a publication on Medium more than two years ago. Since then Medium has deprecated its support for publications (and abandoned its original advertising model), and I’ve soured even more than usual on “platforms,” whether they be well intentioned (as I believe Medium is) or indifferent and fundamentally bad for publishing (as I believe Facebook to be).
So when I finally sat down to write something today, an ingrained but rusty habit re-emerged. For the past two years I’ve opened a clean, white page in Medium to write an essay, but today I find myself once again coding sentences into the backend of my WordPress site.
Searchblog has been active for 15 years – nearly forever in Internet time. It looks weary and crusty and overgrown, but it still stands upright, and soon it’ll be getting a total rebuild, thanks to the folks at WordPress. I’ll also be moving NewCo Shift to a WordPress site – we’ll keep our presence on Medium mainly as a distribution point, which is pretty much all “platforms” are good for as it relates to publishers, in my opinion.
(image) This past week saw a significant increase in society’s willingness to have a deeper conversation about what it means to Become Data. The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that may well supplant the Betamax case in import. And the FCC stepped in it, big time, while pals at O’Reilly opinined for a world where the Internet of Things remains open and transparent. Not to mention, my own ramblings on what it means to truly disappear, and why Google does what it does. To the links….
We are all accustomed to the idea of software “Preferences” – that part of the program where you can personalize how a particular application looks, feels, and works. Nearly every application that matters to me on my computer – Word, Keynote, Garage Band, etc. – have preferences and settings.
On a Macintosh computer, for example, “System Preferences” is the control box of your most important interactions with the machine.
I use the System Preferences box at least five times a week, if not more.
As you work on a book, even one as slow to develop as if/then, certain catch phrases develop. People ask you what the book is about, or the shape of its core argument, and some of the descriptions start to stand out and hit home. One of those is “a world lit by data,” an idea I’ve been toying with for some time now. It’s a metaphor that’s not entirely worked out, but it seems to get the job done – it paints a picture of a time when everything of value around us – everything we “see” – has a component of data to it. In a world lit by data, street corners are painted with contextual information, automobiles can navigate autonomously, thermostats respond to patterns of activity, and retail outlets change as rapidly (and individually) as search results from Google.
The tortured bit of the metaphor is in asking you, the reader, to believe that we will live in spaces full of data, just as we live in spaces filled with light (be it natural or man made). Everyone understands the idea of light as metaphor. But data? Well, to my mind, they are quite connected. Without light, we can’t (easily) take in information about our physical surroundings. In darkness there is far less data. Equating “light” with “data” isn’t too much of a stretch.
Now, the interplay of light and “information” is dangerous but well-trodden ground. After all, in the Old Testament, the first thing God did after creating the physical (Heavens and Earth) was to turn on the lights. And after further contemplation, Christians decided that before Light, there was The Word, which was God’s will made flesh (John 1). Since then, of course, “the word” has come to mean, well, encoded information, or data. Loosely put (and I know I’m on thin ice here) – first we establish the physicality of that which we don’t fully understand, then we bathe it in light, hoping to understand it the best we can.
(image) According to Wikipedia, “deadpan” is a uniquely American neologism less than a century old. The term arose from the slang term “pan,” for face: “Keep a dead pan,” a gangster told an associate in 1934’s The Gay Bride. In other words, don’t show your cards.
“Deadpan humor,” of course, is playing a joke straight, pretending you’re unaware of the punchline. It’s often related to “dark” or “black” humor, which makes light of otherwise serious situations, often with a cynical or satirical tone.
Why am I on about this now? Because I think as a society we’re rapidly shifting into a dark, deadpan culture, driven almost entirely by revelations around the NSA’s PRISM and related programs. We know we can’t pretend we’re not being monitored – so we resort to deadpan humor to handle that new reality.
I won’t beat around the bush. I want you all to come. I’ve lowered the price, because I heard from many of you last year that the ticket was too high (it sold out anyway). But this year, the conversation is too rich for anyone to cry poor over. Come and join us.
I enjoy NextDraft, an email newsletter penned by Dave Pell each day. I value point of view and voice in any medium, and Dave’s got it. I think Searchblog readers would appreciate this item, so I’ve reposted it here. Dave, I hope you don’t mind…
The Gift of Data
Facebook knows a lot about you. But there are a couple things that would make its collection of personal data a whole lot more valuable: Your home address and your credit card number. In addition to having a big revenue potential, Facebook’s new birthday gift store could lead to a data treasure trove (and herald a new era when just typing “Happy Birthday” when prompted is no longer enough).