The Persistence of Memory: What’s Happening to Our Personal Data?

Posted by John Manoogian III on May 27th, 2014 at 6:58 am

When he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell could very well have been talking about the Internet and personal security when he penned the following:

For the first time he perceived that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself. You must know all the while that it is there, but until it is needed you must never let it emerge into your consciousness in any shape that could be given a name.

The connectedness of our lives today comes with a double-edged sword. On one hand, we’re able to communicate and exchange information unlike ever before. Families separated by distance can have face-to-face video conversations, and hundreds of people can edit one entry on Wikipedia, drawing on their collective knowledge to create a resource that would otherwise have taken years to build. On the flip side, nearly every hour of our lives is being documented, whether by our searches and clicks, tweets and posts, or swipes and scans. By some estimates, 2.5 billion gigabytes of data are generated every day, which means that the past few years have led to the creation of 90% of the world’s data. Today, even simple, mundane tasks – like exercising, shopping, and commuting – are tracked and recorded.

In the hours I’ve spent pouring over data, I’ve pondered what else might be possible in the next five years. Though I’m no Orwell, here are a few musings of my own:

External Memory, Internal Creativity

Memory was once internal – Homer’s The Odyssey was a memorized story, told using mnemonic devices to enable memorization – but is now becoming external. Since our computers and devices can store both mundane items and powerful memories, we’ll essentially put our daily lives on autopilot. If our minds no longer need to remember every recorded fact, they can evolve to become machines of analysis, synthesis, and creativity. The downside, of course, is that should the grid go down, we’ll have a hard time remembering how the machines work, how to farm, how to build.

With so much about us part of that data set – tracking our movements through GPS, recording our conversation history over email and text, measuring our biometrics through the growing category of wearables, and even plotting our relationships along social graphs – we will no longer need to be mythologized, nor can we do so. The story of that epic night out can now be fact-checked, so our personal narratives may become a bit less interesting. We gain data that could solve crimes, but we lose a little control of our personal narratives.

Who Knows You Best?

Back in the early 1800’s, German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Know thyself? If I knew myself I would run away.” His words could not be truer today, as data that reveals detailed connections between time, activity, and even our mental state provides us with an extremely intimate knowledge of ourselves.

But how far is too far? What if a device alerts an individual to their distracted and depressed state when they skip breakfast, and then their refrigerator tells their car that they didn’t eat this morning, and then the terms of their insurance activate the ignition lock? Are we saving a life, or are we meddling in private affairs? New technology has always put pressure on the rules of society, and we will have to weigh benefits against risks.

Permanent Records

Think about how personalization has changed the way we consume content today.  We binge watch entire seasons of TV shows – some of which are only produced because user data suggests it will be commercially viable – and sample short form that comes through the recommendations of our social networks.  Feeds are everywhere, the news is 24/7, you’re connected everywhere, it’s always cocktail hour somewhere – so time is effectively meaningless.  Anything can be resumed, including the crush you had on that girl in high school.

At the same time, when data doesn’t perish, it may haunt you. Anyone over thirty will remember hearing “This will go down on your permanent record,” the ubiquitous empty threat from your high school guidance counselor, because your “permanent” record was in a manila folder in a cabinet. Today, school records are digital, and just last week a company founded to store and analyze test scores (from kids as young as 8!) was shuttered when parents revolted.  While it’s understandable that states would want to learn from these records, there’s no statute of limitations.  Parents were concerned that someone thinking of hiring little Johnny when he’s 40 will judge him based on test scores and disciplinary records from when he was 14. We’re already hearing about how college admissions counselors look up prospective students on social media, so this isn’t just an empty worry. How long should we be judged by artifacts of the person we once were, even if studies show that past performance is predictive of future performance?

These are weighty questions, and there are no clear answers just yet. But the most important implication, for now, is to start a dialogue (albeit a tracked one, if comments are added to this page) about the ramifications of collecting our personal data.

John Manoogian III is Co-Founder and CTO of 140 Proof, a social interest technology company. Follow him on Twitter at @jm3. 140 Proof SVP of Marketing Matt Rosenberg also contributed to this article.

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