Big Data and Monetized Liberation

Petabytes of blog data has been created over the past couple of year with the buzz about Big Data. It’s almost enough to make me go off-the-grid, spin a homegrown hemp sack and communicate solely via morse code. However, given the power of Big Data, linked databases and predictive analysis, chances are Google has already known this for some time, and any decision I make on said choice of a solar cells and hemp agriculture materials will be heavily influenced by information I’ve already received via targeting marketing. So I’m going to stick with this blog until I finish this degree and figure out how to better fly under the radar.

Then last Saturday, as part of a formal debate, I was placed on the “pro” team in favor of the more generalized use of consumer and citizen data– for targeted marketing and predictive analysis, for Facebook’s liberal use of consumer data, even for widespread NSA surveillance as a necessary part of their anti-terrorism program. As one who reads blogs such as the Moneyless Manifesto, with serious contemplation, the assignment was indigestion-inducing.

However, in my fictitious process of defending NSA profiling, I facetiously argued that greater intrusion into our lives could spur greater civic engagement and self-creativity, like the swine flu spurs unfettered media reaction, even if the engagement would be reactive instead of proactive. I may have smirked when I suggested this phenomena, but the smirk yielded to momentary pause, then scrutiny. Could the unprecedented use of consumer data truly foster unparalleled individual oversight into use of our data? Will the skyrocketing value of the data we create champion a highly astute consumer behavior steward? Recent attention created by people such Federico Zannier, who is currently selling 50-days worth of his private data in a Kickstarter Campaign, may speak to this impending change.

It’s practically cliche to lament how technological advancements outpace change in our democratic institutions. Creation, it seems, moves exponentially quicker than regulation and interpretation. The lag between the two– institutional response and technology– creates opportunity for abuse and erosion of privacy, transparency, independence, the type of abuses we’re witnessing now by the NSA and Facebook (I hope this is a grossly unfair comparison in the same sentence). Clearly Big Data has the potential to be a dangerously unethical force in our lives. A common example of this threat is the potential intersection of consumer behavior data with health insurance data: if our lifestyle choices are made available, how does predictive analysis factor into health insurance coverage or rates?

I find comfort, however, in the belief that our underlying democratic values have not changed, but have strengthened.  Sure, distraction is at an all time high, but truth, transparency, and trust are also in high demand in this age of easy digital manipulation and dissemination. How we give shape to this value system in an era of wearable electronics, abundant data, and the internet of everything, is up to us.

The proliferation of Big Data will require an unprecedented level of media literacy and citizen engagement in order to keep Big Data “clean” : discovering patterns in disease, creating sustainable cities, and improving efficiency across thousands of products and processes. This type of successful citizen oversight will require continued educational and institutional emphasis on technical knowledge, data and policy analysis, and when necessary, advocating for accountability and change–new hallmarks for a successful techno-democracy. Though I mockingly associated data surveillance as driver of a stronger democracy in last Saturday’s debate, as digital technology becomes more embedded in our lives, and the potential for abuse of that data grows stronger, we must all become guardians of our own domain (literally).The push for matching technology to the open, democratic values fostered by connectivity could very well result in more robust and intelligent citizen engagement, or in Zannier’s case, monetized liberation.

On Story, Personal

From Spotted Owls to Memes

Wireless networks. Social networks. Network TV. Neural networks. Some of us think of networks every day; while others just think about them when we look up our neighbor’s wireless network names. Networked thinking, however, according to Brett Friedman, adjunct professor for the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program and Chief Creative Officer at Rainspark Labs, is more than just thinking about the hardware and physicality of connections. Mastering our behavior, in terms of networked thinking, will be essential to professional success, and making sense of our world.

As an undergrad in New Orleans, LA, studying the ecological sciences, discussions of connectivity in natural systems was par for the course. I still recall a professor commenting on the hullabaloo created by the logging industry and various opponents to proposed logging restrictions within the habitat of the Northwest Spotted Owl. “It’s not about a single species, but the complex set of interactions, both micro and macro, that a single species represents.” According to the tenets of ecology, enormous organic variability springs forth from a fixed set of rules, a hunt to peel away structure from the seemingly unstructured.

I find it serendipitous then, under the shadow of some of the same trees populated by the Spotted Owl, to discuss today’s evolution of communication in terms of networked relationships. Friedman quotes Kevin Kelley, in New Rules to the New Economy, in defining a network as organic behavior in a technical matrix.  Our communication networks, an extension of physical relationships (and as produced by living humans, biological) theoretically operate according to principles that govern networked biological behavior.  Within the seemingly endless variety of content we produce, proponents of network theory argue that success in this realm, or the ability to be “seen” by others en masse, depends on mastering this information flow.

While the search for this “Google Maps” of the Universe, or universal structure, is nothing new, the enormous amounts of data generated by our connected world has unleashed tremendous new insight into the dynamics of systems and human relationships. This potential power of networks is animated brilliantly in this production by Manuel Lima of Cognitive Media, a fellow at RSA (The Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce).

I’m still trying to determine where I stand with network theory providing a unifying theory of structure; It’s odd for me to equate nutrient cycling with, let’s say, how open letters to Miley Cyrus circulate on the web. Yet, I like the implications of this line of thought. Taking this back once again to our relationship with our natural environment, much of the popular face of the environmental movement has historically focused on preserving natural systems for the sake of preserving nature. This has evolved to preserving natural systems for the sake of preserving ourselves. I’d like to fantasize this Miley nutrient cycling brings us one step closer to a “post-environmental world”, one where we view all human behavior as fully governed by natural systems, fundamentally interconnected on all levels, from fluffy viral pop culture memes, to biological connections that foster conservation.

Will our love and obsession with creating, consuming, and distributing media lead us to look deeper into systems overall, or just become more of a distraction? Of course participation in a system doesn’t necessarily generate insight applicable to a wider world, in the way depositing money at my bank doesn’t do much to help me understand financial systems. But understanding how a meme spreads between populations, for example, and its associated network behavior could help change-makers better in building campaigns that lead to more lasting change. The Spotted Owls of today and tomorrow might thank us for it.

If you have any thoughts on how modern communication resemble natural systems, or could benefit conservation, I’d love to hear them!


Convenience, and Everything in Moderation

Twitter Founder Reveals Secret Formula to Getting Rich Online

From WIRED 9.30.2013

Wired’s interview with Ev Williams, one of Twitter’s cofounders, re-emphasizes classic business advice for success, with adaptations and caveats for the digital age: focus on our most fundamental human desires and make them increasingly more convenient. However, don’t take convenience too far, because want we’ll end up with is big agriculture in the garden of our social connections.

Here an excerpt:

“The internet is not what I thought it was 20 years ago,” Williams said. “It’s not a utopian world. It’s essentially like a lot of other major technological revolutions that have taken place in the history of the world.” He compares it to, well, agriculture. “[Agriculture] made life better. It not only got people fed, it freed them up to do many more things — to create art and invent things.”

The rub is that we often take convenience too far. “Look at the technology of agriculture taken to an extreme — where we have industrialized farms that are not good for the environment or animals or nourishment,” he says. “Look at a country full of people who have had such convenient access to calories that they’re addicted, obese, and sick.” He likens this agricultural nightmare to our unhealthy obsession with internet numbers like retweets and likes and followers and friends.


Crossing the Street in Hanoi

If a visitor to Vietnam were to take away only one icon, it would be the motorcycle. Below you’ll find a few moto and transit-oriented pics from a trip to Hanoi and environs.