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.

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