I was at work the other day doing the tedious but necessary job of typing up handwritten notes from customers. It was for a client, an appliance repair company, and most of the notes were some combination of “professional”, “courteous”, “got the job done”, “punctual”, “thank you”. The same message written over and over in big loopy handwriting, in illegible scrawl, in carefully shaped capitals, in prim or flourishing cursive.
One note was written in thick purple marker. It was a unique purple, violet, bluish, probably from a giant 64-pack of markers that kids use. It brought to mind a dining room table strewn with yesterday’s playtime, or a junk drawer full of the flotsam of family life. A mother in a house somewhere with a now-fixed dryer had reached for the nearest writing utensil, the purple marker, and written “Very efficient! Fixed problem fast.”
As I typed it up, I stripped it. Gone was the imaginary mother, the house, the coloring books. There were just 5 words in black 11-point Arial, listed with hundreds of similar comments, all uniform. I felt like I was robbing the world of something. The more I tried to convince myself that these notes were meaningless in the grand scheme of things, written briskly out of politeness or gratitude, the more I saw them as poetry, as artifacts of humanity.
I tried to think of a digital equivalent to the expressiveness of handwriting, and when I couldn’t, for a digital compensation for this glaring detriment. This made me wonder about all the ways that the last two decades have diminished the individual.
Data is the currency of the internet.
It makes the internet (and by extension, much of the world) go round. By data, I’m referring to human triggered data for the purposes of this discussion – the likes, retweets, views, minutes on page, and communication metadata of humankind. The thing about data is that it’s by definition impersonal. It’s binary, quantitative, excel-happy, unassailable fact, stripped of the individual who gave it to the world.
The story of one Facebook like: Joe Smith and his wife Lisa were watching TV together and got into an argument over something dumb. Lisa went to quiet the baby. Joe ate microwaved pocpcorn while he checked Twitter, clicked on a link to a Kickstarter campaign for an eco-friendly wallet, landed on their Facebook page, and liked it.
His was one of 3,000 likes to this page. From Joe’s perspective, there is a history behind the like. It’s an expression of his individuality, perhaps not a very deep one, but there was something that motivated him to click “Like”, which won’t ever be replicated in any other human being. From the data perspective though all likes were created equal. There is nothing about his like that distinguishes it from the others. It’s a binary fact. He did or he did not.
(It’s true that with the data available today, marketers (and others) use a variety of indicators to interpret motivation, by judging things like where the user came from, what page they visited next, how long they spend on the page, but we’re hardly at the point where we can actually know a human’s intention by data alone.)
Data is further impersonalized by the fact that it’s most often collected in aggregate. It’s not ‘Joe Smith liked the Starbucks Facebook page while eating microwave popcorn and watching TV’. His behavior is interpreted only once it’s been compiled and categorized by gender, age, socioeconomic status, education level and other demographics.
In fact, in interpreting data, you want as little as possible of the individual datum to show itself. The more data you have, the more accurate your predictions and insights because the larger your data set, the smaller the individual datum. A single fluke or irregularity won’t skew the results.
If data is impersonal, than metadata (data about data) should be even more so.
Metadata in my mind is now associated with the NSA revelations. The NSA’s first defense after Edward Snowden leaked information about their spying programs, was that they were collecting metadata only.
The implication of that defense is that because it’s metadata, reams of numbers – times, locations, duration, phone numbers – degrees away from the girl in her dorm room crying to her best friend about a break up – it doesn’t invade the privacy of the individual.
And this is where the danger lies.
For those concerned about what marketers, the NSA, and others are doing with our data – the impersonal nature of data is supposed to make it better, less invasive. Nobody has to know your name, or what you want, or your intentions behind liking the page. All they need is the binary fact, you did like the page, or the quantifiable fact, you spent 3:37 minutes on the page, 15.67% more than males in your demographic and 5.34% more than the overall site average.
But is it really better?
Is it better that we have so successfully wiped the individual from our consciousness that we think it’s okay to spy, collect, share, sell and trade in the private lives of people?
We’re looking at this digital infrastructure we’ve created as an inevitable force of nature to be reckoned with, when really it’s an interpreted form of humanity. Servers and algorithms and massive secret databases are at their essence the Joe Smiths of the world, clicking, sending, viewing, liking, and communicating.
No matter how many steps away the final piece of data is from Joe Smith and his microwave popcorn, he will always be there. Data can only be the outermost layer of a person’s self expression, and still it contains everything that makes up his or her identity. The outrageousness of the NSA’s programs could only have gotten to the point that they have because we forgot that.
But what else are we creating now with this mind frame? Which parts of the internet are entrenching this way of thinking? Or do we decide what we can collect etc. based on how many degrees away it is from the person it represents?