Algorithms and the growth of sensorship

Here is a quick thought.  As I have previously said, I think we are moving from the age of the printing press into the age of the algorithm.  Printing led to the growth of censorship whereas algorithms are going to lead to the growth of sensorship.

I was prompted to write this today because of the announcement that one of the UK’s largest electronic goods retailers is linking up with one of the UK’s largest mobile phone retailers.  Electronic goods are basically forms of sensor that monitor human behaviour via how they are used (note: there are now even cameras in Barbie dolls).  Mobile phone retailers basically sell connection to the internet and also provide mobile handsets, which are the most comprehensive form of personal sensor currently out there.  I heard the CEO of the new company on Radio 4’s Today programme make no bones about the fact that the underlying logic behind the deal was the growth in The Internet of Things (with electronic things being the most obvious and easy of such things to connect to the internet).

We are just at a start of a form of data detection landgrab – the Scramble for Data if you like.  The value of any business will be assessed not just from the perspective of its basic operational fundamentals, but also from its potential to acquire  or connect data as a by-product of these operations.  Any device that has the potential to record data, almost no matter how insignificant, which can then incorporate within it data sucking technologies such as RFIDs, embedded SIM cards or WiFi, will automatically have a value attached to this ability.  In some instances, this value may even exceed that of the original function – which is why will increasingly see many products or services offered to us for free or at a discount because of their data collection potential.  We will also see new products which are designed primarily to act as data gatherers, even if they masquerade as having another purpose or benefit.

It is also relevant that earlier this week saw the EU announcement concerning removal of Google entries and the establishment of a de-facto human right to be “forgotten by the internet”.  A pointless and hollow victory for regulation really which really only serves to highlight how little the people who should be protecting our interests really understand what is going on.  Algorithms, Big Data and the internet just don’t work this way.  They don’t want to remember who you are.  Who you are becomes defined by your relationship to what everyone else (or even what everything else) is doing – not by analysis of some notional personal data file from which aspects can be removed or ‘forgotten’ (or censored).  That is the small data way of looking at things.

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