I do most of my thinking on the train to work in the morning, apparently because my brain is like a computer that runs most efficiently the first few hours after a restart. And today I could not stop thinking about the accuracy of a post by Brian Bergstein, deputy editor of MIT Technology Review.
Bergstein thinks there are problems with our data obsession -- and that "the quest to gather ever more information can make us value the wrong things and grow overconfident about what we know."
What are we really measuring? More importantly, who does it serve to measure and publicize it?
News reporters have been mining everything from police reports to property records for years -- long before the advent of big-data -- in a quest to find salacious, damaging, and embarrassing tidbits of information about anyone with a recognizable name.
The "big" news in New York City recently centers on a nasty domestic dispute between a well-known TV anchor and his equally well-known celebrity wife. Make that former TV anchor: A day after the story of the couple's alleged violent altercation hit the front page of the city's tabloids, he "quit."
Do I care? No. But I'm bringing it up because my daughter asked an interesting question: Is this couple's private hell anything close to news? Moreover, now that big-data has entered the picture, are we likely to see even more non-news than we already do?
Maybe. Bergstein cites a a contentious question on the California ballot in 2008 that inspired a website called Eightmaps.com:
The number in the name referred to Proposition 8, which called for the state's constitution to be amended to prohibit gay marriage. Under California's campaign finance laws, all donations greater than $100 to groups advocating for or against Proposition 8 were recorded in a publicly accessible database. Someone (it's still not clear who) took all the data about the proposition's supporters -- their names and zip codes, and their employers in some cases -- and plotted it on a Google map.
Is that an example of transparency or harassment? I asked myself the same question a few months ago after The Journal News, a Gannett newspaper in suburban New York City, published a map showing the names and home addresses of every gun permit holder in Westchester and Rockland counties. Why? So readers could find out who owned guns in their neighborhood. The newspaper removed the interactive map from its website after a new state law that allows gun-permit holders to request confidentiality was enacted in mid-January.
Who did that serve? Does it make someone feel safer to know a former police officer down the block legally owns a gun? The only data that may make sense to publish is a map of the names and addresses of people who own illegal, unregistered firearms. But that data doesn't exist.
In his post, Bergstein quotes Evgeny Morozov, a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.
In To Save Everything Click Here, Morozov cites the Eightmaps episode "to support his claim that "Internet-centrism" is warping our view of what's truly important."
Transparency is ascending at the expense of other values, Morozov suggests, mainly because it is so cheap and easy to use the Internet to distribute data that might someday prove useful. And because we're so often told that the Internet has liberated us from the controls that 'gatekeepers' had on information, rethinking the availability of information seems retrograde -- and the tendency toward openness gathers even more force. (Notice that Facebook says its mission is 'to make the world more open and transparent.')
Is this the new normal? Is it good? Should we accept the transparency of, well, everything and anything as an inevitability or do what Morozov suggests: Demand that today's increasingly easily accessed databases respect values beyond mere transparency?
It's an interesting question. But any discussion, in my mind, should revolve around a very basic question... specifically, "Who does the data serve?"
Are we forgetting that question by being too quick to publicize all kinds of data? Tell us how you feel by taking our new quick poll in the right-hand column!