Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is that all that's left?

2011 has come and almost gone, and I've already forgotten most of it. It's always been that way. I can barely remember my own life. No one else will remember it either. Most of humanity has lived and died and left little more lasting traces of its existence than crickets in a summer field.

Despite our collective social fears of data deluge and "the age of big data", the reality is that we're probably the last generation in human history that will disappear with relatively little trace. As I troll the web today, I don't find much about myself: a few dozen YouTube video clips, a few hundred photos, my blog postings, a few thousand media quotes. Frankly, it really doesn't amount to all that much. It's barely a sliver of my life. In the future, digital archeologists will try to understand our generation, making sense of these digital fragments of our generation, the last lost generation.

The current privacy debates about particular technologies will seem oddly quaint in a few years. I remember a time only a few years ago when serious people thought a spam filter in email must be an invasion of privacy, since a machine was doing the filtering. Now we're debating whether users should click on a pop-up screen for cookies. A decade from now, we'll laugh, I think, about the current fears of digital over-exposure, based on today's trivia: posting a photo to the web, or tweeting, or blogging, or sharing location info with friends, or whatever. Of course, some things shouldn't be published or shared, because they are hurtful or embarrassing. But the scale of data and technology is changing so fundamentally that the importance of a particular piece of data today is almost unknowable.

I'm sure that more and more data will be shared and published, sometimes openly to the Web, and sometimes privately to a community of friends or family. But the trend is clear. Most of the sharing will be utterly boring: nope, I don't care what you had for breakfast today. But what is boring individually can be fascinating in crowd-sourcing terms, as big data analysis discovers ever more insights into human nature, health, and economics from mountains of seemingly banal data bits. We already know that some data sets hold vast information, but we've barely begun to know how to read them yet, like genomes. Data holds massive knowledge and value, even, perhaps especially, when we do not yet know how to read it. Maybe it's a mistake to try to minimize data generation and retention. Maybe the privacy community's shibboleth of data deletion is a crime against science, in ways that we don't even understand yet.

Assuming I live a normal lifespan, I will live to be able to up-load my life memories to remote storage. I'll be able to start real-time recording of my experience of life, and to store it, share it, and edit it. My perceptions, thoughts, and memory, will be enhanced by machines guided by artificial intelligence. Perhaps it's human vanity, but I want to have the choice to store and share my life, before or after its biological limits are extinguished. I am already losing clear memories of my youth, and of places I've been, and people I've loved. What I've lost is lost forever. There was no back-up disk. That's not my idea of privacy, but privation. I suspect a future privacy debate will discuss whether "memory deletion" is a fundamental human right, or deeply anti-social.

I have no idea what this future will look like, or whether humans and society can adapt to it as quickly as the technology will enable it. But as the year draws to a close, I am grateful for a front row seat, hoping to live long enough to see a world of technologies that will stop me from just disappearing from the planet, without anything more than a few random photos and video clips, as part of the last human generation whose evanescent lives left almost no traces, disappearing from the earth like crickets at the end of summer.


Oliver said...

Hello, I found your post thanks to "manhack" on twitter.

I beg to differ : the more data we store online, the less traces we'll leave in the long term.

Know of calculi ? They're the clay balls used for the first commercial contracts, and they evolved into the first written contracts as years passed, this is fascinating. Thousands of years later, this is still fascinating because we still have calculi to look at.

In our digital era, data is no more material, but digital. Hard disks fail. Cloud computing may suffer corruption. Etcetera.
Sooner or later, this immaterial data will vanish too, sadly :(

In short, not trying to be rude : I believe your post is far too "short termist" to be logically valid.

lawrenceserewicz said...

I wish that your benign view was true and possible. Alas, it is not. The big data exists and until this generation is was hidden and relatively unconnected. What we are on is the cusp of an explosive period where the big data emerges and people can make the connections, hack into our identities and explore our lives. We are really living in the last days of innocence. Paul Ohm's paper is a good point to start on understanding how our "anonymous" data is not all that "anonymous".

For the rise of ubiquitous storage for nefarious ends, a good starting place is this brooking paper. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/papers/2011/1214_digital_storage_villasenor/1214_digital_storage_villasenor.pdf
The idea that storage and data is only used for benign purposes is just not tenable given human nature. Moreover, the problem with the current "open data" and "cloud" movement, is that one just does not know who has the data and what they are doing with it whether for good or ill.

What is happenning is the data sets that stored our information is becoming more widely available and interconnected. For example, the use of facial recognition software, based upon any online photo, connected to cctv allows for the tracking of people. This is more than theoretical, it is a reality on some security sites. Moreover, one can have alogrithms set so that the cameras do not need to be monitored by humans. For example, a security system can be set on a remote site to respond

One way to think of this is to consider all your previous credit card transactions, all mobile telephone calls, all emails, cross referenced and analyzed against your medical records, your employment records and those of your friends and families. In that scenario, do you really think you are going to be forgotten by the digital age?

What we put on the web by our own volition is only the tip of the personal information iceberg.

nymious said...

I'm much more in tune with lawrenceserewicz comment that your relatively content free post. We are at a point where our behavior can be very closely tracked and analyzed. Every e-book I read, the time I spend on a persons profile, my variations in weight, my sleeping periods, my detailed medical conditions all we be available to people I do not know. They will be able to analysis and extrapolate the date to determine what I might buy, my voting preferences, my mental stability, my suitability as a employee, my suitability for a mortgage, my likelyhood of objecting to my governments policies.
In America we are too naive about the dangers of profiling by association since this data is "only" used to distract us with advertisements. It's pretty clear that these abilities to look at the massive amounts of personal data will are are being misused.
It's a little discouraging to see someone a Google responsible for privacy in some manner not have a meaningful advocacy for meaningful privacy.

Carole Riley said...

I think I know what you're getting at. Here is Australia we decided, for better or worse, to destroy the census returns after they had been collected and collated in opposition to much of the rest of the world. Now that genealogy is such a popular pasttime family historians are disppointed to learn that this data is unavailable. We are only now, in this century, able to optionally have it kept for release 100 years later, but it is too little too late for most of us. I can only imagine what fears caused this destruction in the first place, but I suspect it was similar fears to those held now - what can people find out about me that can be used against me. The bigger picture was lost.

Christian R. Conrad said...

Peter, you write: "I have no idea what this future will look like, or whether humans and society can adapt to it as quickly as the technology will enable it."

Not to worry; that's what we have science fiction authors for. :-)

To the old pantheon (forever headed by the holy triumvirate of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, but including many more; e. g, van Vogt, Bradbury, Sheckley, Pohl, and on and on), we may add names like Gibson, Banks, Brin, Stross, Doctorow...

Quite a lot of ideas about what it will, or might, be like are being kicked around.