Downside of Ubiquitous Data

Ars Technica picks up on a paper by Harvard professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on the dystopian possibilities of ubiquitous data storage. He describes a digital panopticon:

If whatever we do can be held against us years later, if all our impulsive comments are preserved, they can easily be combined into a composite picture of ourselves. Afraid how our words and actions may be perceived years later and taken out of context, the lack of forgetting may prompt us speak less freely and openly.

Of course, the other side of that coin is that not only will comments be preserved, but so will their context! The exact opposite trend is already in motion: rather than trusting an edited, summarized version of a conversation (say, as presented by news media), savvy web surfers go to the original transcript and see the context for themselves.

Just as Photoshop makes average people into image retouchers, YouTube makes us video distributors, and Amazon makes us book reviewers, Google and other search tools make us journalists. We’re learning to evaluate and corroborate claims, to seek out primary sources and cite them.

If every stupid comment ever made is stored, then it should no longer be a scandal to find a stupid comment someone made. As usual, human values trail behind technology. But if you want a preview, ask an 18-year-old how they evaluate a peer’s old web posts. Those in glass houses forgive smudges.

2 replies on “Downside of Ubiquitous Data”

“We’re learning to evaluate and corroborate claims, to seek out primary sources and cite them.”

I don’t know about this–seems like wishful thinking. I don’t think digital information necessarily teaches these skills. Mostly I think search engines teach people to take the top five sources that emerge from a search, with little regard for the quality of the information. Am I just in a bad mood? Should I be more hopeful?

Well, that’s the pessimistic take. As long as that perspective motivates us to raise our standards and really check our facts, I think it’s equally valid. I would only dispute the idea that ubiquitous data will inevitably be consumed in the same passive way as old media.

I think most of us have had the experience of, say, forwarding a bogus story via email, and then being debunked by friends or family. I do the cross-checking to prevent the embarrassment, in addition to caring about the truth of the story. It’s so easy now that I know my audience will be able to do the same research and catch any mistakes.

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