I've been recently toying with an odd thought experiment. Is there any fundamental difference between a person's (user's) actions on a public street and say that same user's actions online. In my mind I see this a sort of odd politicking by some who seem to think that their actions online should be considered private.
What do we make of such a claim? And to this end there is a new concept developed, to the best of my knowledge by, Joseph Turow. First let me state I have yet to read his book, as I have many other obligations. But, then again I've never claimed to be an expert, and if we work within my own framework Mr. Turow is a "generalist" like anybody else when we deal with policy and human interaction. So with that said I still think some ruminations on this concept might provide some insight into what appears to be one of the greatest dichotomy of the digital age.
This dichotomy is one of Live Data vs. Intangible Data. These two terms are somewhat generalized, and I will attempt to clarify where possible, but again we are dealing in terms of people and as such cannot rightfully expect to develop any exacting or precision measure.
What do I mean by, Live Data. This is the sort of data you develop in context. To use an example that I make great use of here, imagine that you are at a coffee shop. Here you physically meet people, and simultaneously develop cursory data about them. You see that the barrista is wearing a green apron, and sneakers, the customers are all dressed to reflect their own tastes and practices. Some are dressier then others and others are more comfortable. The point I wish to make is that you infer data about these individuals based on the data that you see these people present in public.
Now what do I mean by Intangible Data? Intangible data is of a similar sort; however, it is gathered from ones actions at different places. Your grocery store, or in this case our coffee shop collects this data either with or without a discount card. These are the sort of things that you might buy from that location. This is also the sorts of information that is commonly tracked by ones clicks online.
This is a major affront to some people it seems, and Mr. Turow covers this with a concept of "information respect." I think this is a noble sounding idea, however at the same time to me it seems to originate out of a desire to obscure the truth. Indeed the example he gave was of a family receiving targeted adds due to their weight, and eating habits. These adds, might, might be offensive, Mr. Turow did not discuss how such a matter would be addressed.
Indeed one might argue that such targeted individuals may indeed need or deserve intervention (as Mr. Turow is suggesting a one size fits all morality (a.k.a political correctness) rather then a precisely applied individual one). Yet I get ahead of myself, we will return to these implications.
Back to our thought experiment, in meatspace it OK for me to infer that someone is "overweight." Yet say that precise data points that have been offered up publicly in one's profile really do prove that one person is "overweight" then we can see the roots of such calls for "information respect."
We don't seem overly concerned when we sign up for a store's discount card, yet somehow this same seems so offensive when the same practice in the online environment? I think this emotion extends from people's shear unfamiliarity. It is common to distrust something that is unknown and unseen. And in this way I see Mr. Turow lashing out at this practice.
Mr. Turow might take issue with my example of someones public data profile. As I haven't read the book I am not sure of his position on this, he seems most interested in inferred data. Yet that is the heart of my point. I can meet someone in public and infer the same data that is being inferred by someone's data footprints online, and I fail to see a difference in how this practice is any different then the fundamental human impulse to understand the world around us.
In essence the dichotomy stems from a misunderstanding about the nature of the Internet. We want think that since we access individually that our actions should be seen as we are when we use our computers, in private (even in a public space with others around us). Yet this defies the very reason we use the Internet, to communicate, which is a social activity. We engage in the same behavior offline, and know that our actions and buys in stores are tracked by the seller.
The hacker community will tell you that we are still coming to terms with technology. They are right in this regard; however, they still do not fully recognize just how egalitarian the Internet really is. A raw society that is not a monolith, not defined by a handful of websites, and certainly much more human then machine. Thus more data is "public" then ever before, and simultaneously an individuals political "optics" have never been more important.
NPR: Fresh Air
How Companies Are 'Defining Your Worth' Online
Cory Doctorow @ 28c3
The Coming War On General Computation