Privacy (as the Withholding of Information) in the Information Age

Business professionals in e-commerce talk about information like it is today’s fundamental commodity. Yet information— raw data— is less helpful than we tend to think. Privacy becomes harder to maintain in an era in which business and government think that more data is always better and that accruing data will solve problems. Information is necessary, but not sufficient, to solving problems and pushing progress along.

Lots of entities want information: governments want information about their citizens, employers want information about their employees, corporations want information about their consumers, etc. Such entities have always wanted information, but only recent technological developments have made it reasonable to obtain and organize that information. The biggest remaining barrier to such information collection is the ethical and legal concept of privacy. My contention is that the mere gathering of data is less helpful than the gatherers might think.

One way to think of this issue is to see human action as having two components: 1) an internal motivation or attitude and 2) an external display of action. So, if I purchase a large supply of plastic drinking cups, the store computers may recognize my purchase and correlate it to the kinds of other items people purchase with drinking cups: plastic cutlery, snack food, soda, and so forth. The store wants to predict my motivation by examining my action and correlating my action with similar actions and using inductive reasoning to sell me more things. But what if my motivation in buying many cups is to have a cup stacking competition? Or to have a 2nd grade class plant lima beans? The problem with relying heavily on gathering information is that you can only make guesses about the internal state of the actor.

The debatable assertion is this: Humans cannot be captured by data sets. Some (who probably favor Hume) may say they can, but it must be conceded that the data set must become extremely, extremely large. Perhaps more importantly, some elements essential to that data set cannot be collected through transaction records, e-mails, Facebook “likes”, tweets, and all other collectable data. Seen in this way, a reasonable fear emerges: as entities gather data, they act on that data as though it is a more complete picture than it actually is. Another way to state this issue is “data does not explain itself.”

There are a few important takeaways about the limits of the power of data:

1) You don’t get to know people from their Facebook profiles.

2) Stores know what people buy, but not always why they buy them.

3) Privacy can protect both parties from an incomplete picture.

4) Data is a raw material. It must be processed with understanding, refined through meaning and context, and crafted with wisdom into usable information and then into intelligence.

5) Computer systems can record observations of fact and interact according to algorithm, but cannot “understand” any “significance” or “meaning” of any data.

NOTE: There is so much to this subject! I expect to return (probably repeatedly) to this subject in more specific settings to explore deeper nuances and applications of issues.

The Ethics of Search: Can an algorithm have normative value?

Googling “9/11 Truth” gets a lot of… questionable, if non-canonical, information about the Sept. 11 attacks. A woman looking up information about a company she wanted to sue found a law professor’s final that was based on a previous case of the company with some modifications (the untrue kind) to the facts for the purposes of the final. Finding lots of facts is not the same as finding truth. Prof. Henry Jones, Jr. once told his class, “Archeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is just down the hall.” I’m interested in fact, truth, and the relationship between the two. Despite the distinction between fact and truth, our interactions with facts lead us to either come to truth or falsehood. Although searches can only find information, data, and facts, we can make no better a conclusion than the information upon which is it based.

This illuminates a broader issue: Can any Technology have an ethical or moral status? It is well noted that that an object does nothing but what someone does with it. Yet technology is designed with a user and a use in mind. Patches and software updates are familiar to us because the designer is looking to improve the relationship between the technology and the user. While it is true that people may misuse any object, I am not persuaded that an analogy exists between the scenarios of someone using a medical tool (designed to heal) for murder and a search engine (designed to find data) leading people to questionable-at-best material first and foremost. The first represents a deliberate misues of a tool. The second represents a proper use of a tool that has failed to perform its function properly.

The issue doesn’t rest here, of course, because someone must judge which material ought to be found first, or how the engine ought to drive someone to arrive at certain material. Perhaps the issue is best framed as the impossibility of objectivity when any outcome can be manipulated and tailored to. If Google is to attempt pure, cold, disinterested objectivity, its methods and algorithms can be abused and exploited. To avoid those results, Google’s only option might be to become interested in both the method and the outcome of search results. Neither scenario is wholly satisfying.

A Compressed Language for the Digital Age?

Analytic philosophy features some lengthy tomes (Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Rawls, etc). The idea is to be thorough, laying out the explanation and motivation for the argument, the counter arguments and replies to them. It isn’t just jumping in and asserting some ideas. It’s a matter of carefully constructing a case, building it from the foundation up. Another reason for the length is to show context for the argument: where does it come from (historically), how does it connect to other arguments, why is it important, what does it do, what are its limits and weaknesses, etc? Between 400-500 words seems about the limit for many people for these blog posts— More than that starts to get too in-depth and too convoluted for people to stay interested. The benefit to me, as an author, is that I am compelled to think about the issue and boil it down to its bare, core bullet points. The downside of this for any reader is the lack of context. On some readings of Baudrillard, this might be a good thing, in that there is no “seduction” or “leading away” of anyone from the thing which we are trying to understand. However, if there is anything to the ideas of the structuralists, maybe placing the issue in a web of context and showing its connections to and disconnections from the rest of the world is actually how we come to understand it. But is the web too complex for this to work? Can we trust readers to place in the web themselves, to link and tag and categorize correctly and appropriately? Maybe they’ll be better at it than authors. Maybe they won’t do it at all.

It makes me wonder if the amount of material available and the increased access to it in the 21st century begins to impose a need on changes in language that accommodate a faster transfer of information. As files began to get big, we started “compressing” (or “Zipping”) them during transfer. To compress is to increase the density of a mass by decreasing the volume it takes up, even as the mass stays constant. We compress gasses with various tanks and pumps, and computer files with languages and applications —can we compress ideas with language and thought? Would the compression of ideas require a new grammar, or only a few new words and symbols? We would still need to trust the reader to “unzip” or “decompress” the information once they received it: to tag, categorize, connect, sort, collate, etc. in their own mind. Are we equipped to do this, as readers?