We must be data activists, says Nora Young

Nora Young is an astute observer of the impact of technology on our lives and relationships. This year, she turned her attention to our penchant to record our actions, feelings and thoughts through social media and connected devices. The result is The Virtual Self, her report on self reporting and its implications.

Nora Young came to Third Tuesday Toronto to share her insights with the community. And we captured her presentation on video.

There was much in Nora’s presentation that caught my attention.

A Watershed moment

“We’re at a watershed moment – a moment when data and information are no longer scarce and created top down, but is becoming ubiquitous and generated bottom up,” she posited. “Our new tools for gathering and sharing data are changing how we see ourselves and the world around us.”
We’re headed to a future where we track more and more about ourelves. Where we are. What we’re doing. How we spend out time. “The statistical minutiae of everyday life.” Nora Young labels this habit “self tracking.” Others term it “self monitoring,” “personal metrics,” “quantified self,” or “personal infomatics.” By whatever name, the trend is exploding as we consciously record data about our actions and state and as other data is captured simply because we are using connected digital devices. The information can be “in the everyday, the banal, the ordinary.” But increasingly, more and more of us are leaving more and more digital tracks that reveal something about ourselves.

Consider, she suggests, that most of us “online are on Facebook. A short few years ago, people talked about this as odd. Why would you want to share the minutiae of your everyday lives, like what you had for lunch. And now, this is normal behaviour for most people who are on the Internet. Not because they are obsessives. Not because they are narcissistic, but because there is a social utility in gathering that information and sharing it.”
And because we are increasingly using digital devices that are “always on, always connected” to the Internet, we do not need to expend much effort or energy to capture this information. It may even be automatically captured without any overt gesture on our part.

Four trends create a digital doppelganger of our world

Nora sees the convergence and interaction of four trends to create a unique moment:

  • Self-tracking, the data about our actions, preferences, feelings, etc. that we deliberately or passively record
  • The ability to aggregate the data through applications and search
  • The introduction of sensors in the environment, the Internet of things; and
  • Continual access to data via mobile devices.

Together, these trends create a digital doppelganger of the real world around us.

“The digital data that we are generating about our every day lives can and will be used to change the real flesh and blood, bricks and mortar world around us,” she suggests. “This is both good – thrilling even. But it’s also potentially scary, with some worrisome aspects to it as well.”

“What we are seeing now in embryonic form in our use of apps and social networking is really just the beginning of a bottom up data revolution that will change the next twenty years.”

“Be a data activist.”

“In order for us to get the future that we want, people like us – citizens – need to get involved. We need to claim our power to use our data for good, for positive ends. We need to be ‘data activitists,’ much in the way that we would talk about people being political activists or environmental activists. We need to be activists with respect to this new world of booming data.”

“What we as a society decide are the rules of the game for handling the data that we create will shape the future in profound ways.  It will shape whether and how we can use the data in our own lives, how we can use the information that we create to benefit not just ourselves but also our communities.”

Why now? Because huge changes are occurring. And, according to Nora, “it’s precisely when a new communications technology is created that the culture and the social norms of that technology are open to being shaped. It’s at that beginning period that we can our consciousness and our skill to how we consider new technologies and improve what they are used for. Because down the road, there will be a point where it will seem inevitable, where what’s up for grabs now gets shot down.  Now is the point at which we need to start talking about these things.”

At the first level, the information can be useful when we capture and share information with people who share our interests. Whether it’s a pointer to the latest book we’ve selected to read or the restaurant we frequent most often, this information can be used as a guide by the people who know and follow us.

At a higher level, however, the data that we create can be aggregated and mined for insight into the total community of which we are part. And at this level, the data can be used to reshape communities. We see an early example of this in the use of real time traffic data by commuters to navigate around congested areas. This tool shapes decisions in real time, decisions that are then immediately recorded and displayed in real time in the resulting changes in traffic flow. It creates a dynamic feedback loop. Imagine this across a complete range of activities and think about the potential for the construction of a digital layer of data on top of our real life activities that enables others to incorporate aggregate patterns, likes, dislikes, behaviour, etc. in reshaping our environment and experience in real time. That’s an awesome vision. And it’s not some far distant science fiction future. It’s something that is being explored right now.

But we need to be digital activists to ensure that the data is used for good and in the way we intend. As digital activists, we must understand and speak out about the privacy implications of these developments. We must insist that the data is used for something beyond corporate ends, for public good (Think Ushahidi.) Are we choosing the tools that reflect our values? (Think Twitter’s assymetrical following vs. Facebook’s forced mutual friending.) And if we’re creating the tools, are we creating something that offers some real value to people and enables people to create meaning in their lives?

Where do you stand?

There is potential for us to shape how the data gathering tools are created and how the data is used. But to do this, we must become data activists.

Think about it. Do you simply go with the flow? Click yes to share your location data? Consciously check your privacy settings on Facebook? Turn off automatic checkins? Are you a data activist?

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