Thursday, August 15, 2013

Big Data and our return to 'village' life

Genome databases, Google databases, medical record data bases, credit card histories, online identifiability, phone records, GPS records, nosy spies, and other current forms of information collection and storage are changing our way of life.  This is so pervasive that the new term 'Big Data' has been coined to give it cachet by those who are collecting and using it.  Big Data bases are of concern to many, but it's also true that many or most of us are willingly contributing to them, even if we're aware of the potential downfalls.

We still talk on our cell phones, tweet, buy from Amazon using Google, know that our medical records are being computerized, use credit cards, post to blogs and confess all on Facebook.  We lay this stuff out for the public to see, even knowing it can (and will) be accessed by various corporate institutions (who promise confidentiality of various forms).  Presumably, the remoteness or degree to which we are blind to the behind-the-scenes uses of Big Data keeps us from worrying about it, relative to the convenience and short-term gain (a quick purchase, a quick exchange of messages).

Some aspects of Big Data were rather unanticipated by most people.  Only some geneticists realized that from DNA sequence databases, various things about each individual, and individual families and identification, would be possible (as described here).  Actually, even a few seemingly anonymous facts can be assembled to pinpoint a person and his/her habits (where they buy things using a given credit card, their zip code, things they say on Twitter, stores or restaurants they've used, and the like).  Few of us really thought out the implications of the way Google knows our every move, because Google makes it (and our Gmails, and tweets, and Facebook pages) useful for them to target commercial and who knows what else to us individually

And even if the data were somehow so encrypted that these individual identifications were not possible, even in principle, the aggregate information can be used in many ways that affect us as individuals--products and prices, targeted advertising, and so on.

In a way, we have placed implicit trust that we won't be exploited unfairly--by our individual standards of fairness--even though any thinking person knows that misuse is possible and therefore that at least some misuse is inevitable.  If knowledge is power, and power corrupts, that is rather clear.

Here at Penn State there is a big kerfuffle about a mandatory 'wellness' screening program for employees, including physical exam, questionnaire about personal habits and behavior, and a biometric screen (lipids, bloodpressure, glucose, etc.).  It's voluntary....well, except that if you decline to participate, your monthly salary deduction for health care will be surtaxed by $100!  The promise is that the healthcare provider and the data collector will maintain individual confidentiality so that my personal habits won't be used to adjust my healthcare premiums.   Not many people trust either that this will be kept confidential nor that it won't some day soon be used to charge each of us a different rate--that may make airline fare schemes look downright benign.  The company taking the survey (which, for various reasons is a hugely unreliable source of actual medical information) is purportedly using (i.e., selling) such data to commercial outfits like drug companies so they can tailor ads and so on based on the risk pool, and such like.

Whether this is true or not, whether any form of national health care, in this country at least, could really be mainly in the public interest, is debatable.  Our profit-based way of life (that we ironically call 'privatized' despite the abuse of privacy!) is deeply entrenched, and most of us have a stake in it even if we don't realize it (for example, our pension plans are based on stock investment, etc.).  The acceptable limits of abuse or greed is a kind of social decision that will have to be made in real time, as instances arise that get public attention (much as there is at least a tepid reaction to the news about NSA use of phone records, that may lead to a least some tempering of that usage).

But if we step back a bit, it may be that our very notion of privacy is a rather recent social fact, a kind of luxury that few of our ancestors enjoyed.  Perhaps most of our ancestors would wonder why we felt as we did about 'privacy' or what aspects were even right.  The vast majority of people in the history of our species (probably including the majority alive today) lived in very small, local groups, largely of various levels of kinship, in which as the saying goes, everybody knows what everybody else is doing.  Instead of laws, many societies rely on gossip to constrain improper behavior and maintain an acceptable level of power differences.  If you were sick, you consulted the shaman, often in open purging ceremonies, and so on.

Who you married, even when you had sex, how much resources you had, who you associated with, your religion or beliefs, your quirks, strengths, weaknesses, things to admire and things to fear about you were common knowledge.  You may have worn clothing that covered what the local culture thought should be private (e.g., your 'privates'), but the rest of you was, so to speak, laid bare.

But as society became agricultural and settled, and perhaps more lived in cities (though even until very very recently that was only a small fraction of the population, even in urban civilizations like Europe and the US and Japan etc.), more people and more complex activities (jobs, companies, apartment complexes or private homes separated from open view) made some aspects of life more inaccessible and hence private.  People may have gotten used to it, especially those who were better off, to protect them from jealousy and robbery etc.  The poor lived, and still live, in more traditionally exposed ways.  Think of slums and favellas, tenements, and more.

So it may be that what we are witnessing is that technological advances have in a way begun to restore us to a kind of non-private village life.  It's true that in a traditional village, you knew who might be saying what about you directly, but here we know who the snoops are, at least in generic terms (that is, it's Google, 23andMe, Verizon, WebMD.  It's a change of detail, but perhaps not so much in substance and implication as we might think.

So what we may be experiencing is the technologically driven end to a brief, anomalous era of privacy.  Because it seems so new and hence unnatural, we resist--at the same time that we keep using cell phones, chats, Google, and Amazon.

The debates about Big Data, medical or commercial, will work out in some ways how the return to village life will take place.....


Anonymous said...

Well, there is one difference. The trust level of village life does not exist in the 'global village' due to asymmetry between big and small players. For example, Goldman Sachs sees everyone's personal investment decision and uses that to make insider bets for their own gain. We do not have access to inner dealings of Goldman in this 'global village'. That kind of asymmetry typically did not exist in a rural village.

So, the current situation is more similar to Stasi than village.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, well the analogy we made can only go so far. We have close friends who grew up in Poland at the same time as the Stasi were at their peak in Germany, and we've heard some stories from them....

Anonymous said...

Another large difference in your analogy is how long such information is accessible. In the 'villages' you describe, everyday behavior is transiently recorded in memory only for as long as it is memorable or supplanted by another piece (which in gossip settings probably correlates with how much an action differs from the accepted social norm).

In the modern village, all past actions can be indefinitely stored and accessed. This can strongly shift the dynamic of interpersonal relationships, commerce, or other interactions, by basing decision-making on a longer history of information which may or may not be currently relevant.

Ed Hollox said...

So... if you are ill, your university medical insurance won't cover you? Can I buy stock in that insurance company, sounds a good deal to me?

This reminds me of a joke doing the rounds: the British health system treats you when you are sick but not if you are well, the American health system treats you when you are well but not if you are sick!

Ken Weiss said...

Changes of all sorts are coming, and I think we can't predict how things will go. But until we have a true national health care system, not connected to employers and with a safety net for the poor and unlucky, we will struggle along. Things will work out, clearly involving more cost to users. When or whether we can put a tournequet on greed and profit, and return medicine to a status as a profession rather than a trade, is anybody's guess.