Street art of two people talking in Dozza, Italy

We Can Stop Feeding the Data Monsters

At the close of his latest book The People Vs Tech (Ebury, 2018), Jamie Bartlett declares, “we can stop feeding the data monsters”.

He’s talking about certain social media sites; and I agree with him.

 

The Vice Chancellor of a world-famous university, in 2006, asked for my advice as to whether one such platform (guess which) would ever take off. (Ooh, get me!) Since at the time it was only for the use of the world’s universities, I signed up, looked around, and said no. (Oops.) Ten years later and I’ve come off it.

Sitting in a pub for my birthday a few weeks ago, surrounded by about ten friends, I was lauded by some for the decision to delete my data (users now have the option to delete or close their account – a change from a few years ago). Those that didn’t sing my praises still understood why I’d done it – admitting that, while they were still on the platform themselves, they hadn’t posted anything in months and used it through gritted teeth. The best example of this was from our friend who had taken to posting end-of-week pick-me-up photos of kittens a few years ago: an institution among this crowd. Even that, he said, has been dropped in recent weeks. Everyone nodded as though this summed up the situation neatly. It’s still “out there”. One can still view historic kittens. But the file of feline findings lacks the fecundity of former Fridays.

‘I have to be on it though’, protested a friend in a different crowd a few days later. ‘If I wasn’t, I couldn’t market my business’. ‘How effective has that marketing been?’, I asked. She didn’t answer.

In Bartlett’s epilogue (20 Ideas to Save Democracy), he continues: ‘There are lots of smaller, ethical companies providing social media, internet search engines, taxis or home rentals. Research them and be responsible in your decisions…’ (p.218)

Fed up with the thought of GCHQ or the NSA’s PRISM program eyeing up my marmalade on toast, a map app telling a server in USA exactly where I am at all times, the wasted time spent giving in to the engineered dopamine rush that results in nothing that genuinely enriches the lives of me or my contacts, a platform tracking my every online move even when I haven’t logged in for days, and a platform passing on my data in a manner against its own terms of use, I haven’t so much become a luddite as a fair trade shopper. I have revised my platform usage and, for now, will continue to do so. (I admit the thought of returning to the big platforms under a pseudonym is certainly tempting; especially if an agent or publisher gives me an “are you crazy?” expression.)

In a footnote on the same page mentioned above, Bartlett adds: ‘Use Bandcamp… use DuckDuckGo…’

So here I am, using DuckDuckGo to research what on earth “Mastodon” is, feeding the data monsters a little less, and asking questions about the sort of future we want to build.

People making money from online advertising and selling is fine. Individually profiling and tracking me isn’t. If that means I have to pay for platform use, or rely on a second-rate open source alternative, certainly for now (while I wait for account deletion to take effect) – so be it.

The Silicon Valley sense that disruption is always good, that web tech will still bring us that shiny goodness of a more interesting, more democratic, more egalitarian and more open future probably still, I imagine, inspires some good change from the minds of young coders and the Gen-X dreamers who now manage them and started this all. I was there in the dot com boom. I know what it’s like. But, at the very least, I think it’s time to shop around.

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2 thoughts on “We Can Stop Feeding the Data Monsters

  1. Engineering & Technology Magazine (E&T, v.13, i.4, p.4) say: ‘Facebook know where its users are, where they go, work, eat, shop, hotels and bars visited. Location-based surveillance has been used by law-enforcement agencies… [A]lgorithms use 98 data points to predict highly sensitive personal attributes… Profiles [on non-Facebook users] can…contain facial recognition data from photos [compiled from contact lists of their friends or friends’ friends]… [and it] harvests data from every text message …including deleted texts.’

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