Welcome to episode number 251 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett. And with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast this week, we’re gonna chat about data, our digital selves, and the ongoing debate over privacy and permission, given the recent revelations regarding Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook’s user profiles. I’m gonna talk a little bit about the background of this news item, if only to set the foundation for our discussion today, Dirk, although I imagine that everybody’s been hearing about it quite a bit on news media anyway. But to lay the groundwork for our discussion anyway, what happened was in 2014, researchers asked people on Facebook to take a personality survey, which allowed the researchers to also scrape some information from the people’s profiles, which included information about their friends. Thus, these researchers were able to get information on quite a number of people, 50 million people, their raw profiles were obtained in this fashion, which was just through the innocuous survey which was given.
This information was then used by a political research and data firm called Cambridge Analytica to do work on President Trump’s campaign. The way in which this data was obtained is no longer allowed by Facebook, of course. This is a sneaky way, or at least a way in which users were unaware their data could be obtained in this way, even though they might have had the ability to turn on and off a particular setting. Nonetheless, important data about all these people was obtained by this research and analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica.
Fast forward to 2018, and there’s a huge question now about how this data was used or misused, and whether or not the data got from Cambridge Analytica into the wrong hands. Over the course of the past four years or so, there have been lots of fits and starts to this story, and Cambridge Analytica said they got rid of all the data and they no longer had it. Come to find out that they may have had it longer than they said they did. It’s really turned into an awful black mark for Facebook because Facebook’s entire business is using the data that it obtains from people to provide the Facebook service. It’s really caused people to sort of feel betrayed by Facebook, whether that’s rightly or wrongly founded. That’s up for debate. But right now, Facebook’s stock has taken a tremendous hit. The leadership is under fire from all quarters, including the US Congress is asking Mark Zuckerberg to come and testify, and it’s a real difficult time to be working at Facebook.
All that being said, I think this reveals an awful lot about our digital selves and how we use the information. We’re gonna get into all that today, Dirk. Before I start asking questions about that, any passing thoughts on the history of this story or insight into the brouhaha that has formed around Facebook?
Yeah. This is typical of, we knew that things like this were going on with Facebook for years. For years. What they’re doing with data, data they’re getting, how it’s being used, the whole nine yards. We’ve talked about it on the show before. It’s another story where these are things that have been out there. People are aware of them or if they’re not aware of them, they can observationally get a clue that that must be happening given other things that they visibly see happening on the platform. All of that’s for a long time. But now suddenly, there’s something concrete and specific that some people are upset about, and now everyone is upset. I mean, be upset with yourselves for not seeing this years ago and knowing that this kind of stuff was what’s going on.
We talk about it on this show. If you listen to this show, then you certainly should have been aware. I’m sort of ill tempered towards the human nature at the moment, given all of the righteous indignation. Come on. I mean, yeah it’s f’ed, but it was f’ed years ago. We knew this. This is Facebook. You only talk about it now that the media’s talking about it and the cameras are on. Yeah, I’m feeling a little salty in that way. But Jon, I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you that, to me, look it’s just all a capitalism issue. If the incentive structure for a company is to accumulate as much wealth as possible, largely with no consequences whatsoever, then you can expect that company to accumulate as much as possible doing things that are reflective of a situation where you have likely no consequences whatsoever.
So, this is systemic. If we structured our economic system, if we structured our society in a way that accumulation of capital wasn’t the greatest good, it wasn’t so lightly regulated. If we had a situation where we were working towards more holistic, more collective gains and benefits, none of this would be happening. But it’s another example of just the ugly underbelly of capitalism.
Yeah. I think that, or at least for me, when I’m viewing this story, I’m starting to consider our data, our digital selves as somewhat unknown territory. Let me unpack that a little bit. So, data seems … because we use such a sort of blunt term as data, that’s information about me, right? It’s easy to discuss it as being this complete thing to itself, and it really isn’t. What’s interesting to me is that there’s aspects of this Facebook data or the user profile data that we have not really considered thoroughly when we’re handing it over to a digital service.
Let me start by saying, imagine we’re in our non-digital lives, and I strike up a friendship with you, Dirk. There’s certain information that you’re gonna learn about me over time, whether it’s my address because you come over for a drink, or you start to learn about the things that I like because we go to a store together and I buy something. So, there’s incremental parceling out of this so-called data that we have as part of our relationship, and there are gates there, right? Certain activities that we do, if we go to the movies or whatever, we may not choose to do other activities. So, there’s this built-in ability for us to get to know each other and for certain so-called data to be shared, and that’s how a relationship is built.
Now in the case of a Facebook profile, the information that I choose to share there or not share there, and the permissions I set to those, I don’t consider them in the same way that I do when I’m going through the flow of developing a relationship with somebody. So, it’s a massive piece of information about me that I have shared with people who I’m friends with on Facebook, and those people I may not have a ongoing relationship with. I may. They may be friends from high school. They may be people that I know now. So, all of a sudden, this carefully parceling out of information that happens in the physical world is just no longer the case. There’s just this massive amount of information about me, whether it’s photos of me at various holidays, whether it’s my likes and dislikes, whether it’s things that I’ve said, and all of this just becomes available in a public fashion.
It’s not quite like having your private diary shared or journal, or what have you, but it has some analog to that. We don’t have the same physical ways of meeting out information. This is just sort of, I’m just riffing on this because this is the area where Facebook is most concentrated. But if you can start to apply this thought across all of our digital data, which once again there’s health data. There’s data about our family history. There’s genomics data. There’s data about our behavior when we’re in our houses and we have our internet of things, appliances on. And all of these things require a certain amount of thought, a certain amount of measurement and understanding before we let companies, let people we don’t know, let other organizations have access to it.
And what concerns me is that this is just all seen as a giant digital glob. This is just Jon’s digital life and it’s this big pile of stuff, and it’s really not that. There’s a lot more nuance to it, and I think we’re gonna have to find other names for data. Like the Eskimos have some large amount of names for snow because they have to deal with it all the time. We need other ways of talking about so-called data, because it’s not all the same stuff. And the consequences for misusing different pieces of it can be dire, as we’ve seen in this case. Dirk, I’ve ranted and raved. Tell me what you think?
I suspect there are specific terms for different types of data. I mean, they’re not used commonly. I’m not familiar with them. Obviously, you’re not familiar with them either, but I’m sure if we crawled into the world of data nerdery, we would find those terms. I think they even exist. It’s just that there’s no awareness, no knowledge. I mean look, a lot of us use services like Facebook as a diversion, as a distraction, as a down moment for our brains. The last thing that we want is to be decoding some complex system of what are the different types of data that I could be familiar with and understand what’s going on here and sort it all out. We’re just wanting to go on there and put on smiley faces and gifs, right.
That’s the problem, is that the role that services like Facebook, that are very data intensive, that are leveraging the data about us, they’re not things that are a legal contract where we’re at a moment in our day where we have to have our brain turned on. Where we know it’s gonna suck. Where we have to focus and figure it out properly because we know that that’s the context of legal things. Facebook and other social apps live in the universe of, “I’m gonna smile. I’m going to relax. I’m going to turn my brain off.” So for some number of woke, for lack of a better word, individuals with regard to this stuff, yeah we can have the awareness and make decisions, but most people just want to slide on into the things that they’re doing.
So, I think that solutions that are on the side of personal responsibility are going to be failures because you’re going to serially get people who mindlessly opt in ignorant of the ramifications and implications, and are surprised downstream when their data’s being used in ways that they don’t want, or things are happening on the platform that are beyond the scope and scale of their conception of it in their own world, in their own life. For other people, it’s not just the thing to be goofy around or to just mindlessly numbly thumb through while you’re standing in line at the grocery store. For other people, this is a weapon to attack the democratic system of another country, for example. So, the juxtaposition of those things, not fitting in with each other terribly well, really makes the problem worse.
Yeah. That’s a good insight. I think that we’re to the point now where having experienced most of the internet revolution and the subsequent mobile revolution, from a professional side, I can say that at the beginning of the internet, it really did feel like the wild west, and people were putting together products and services, and pushing the boundaries. I’m desensitized to that right now, but I still think we’re in that wild west period, even though it may not seem like it. Part of that is they call the cure alls that people, that hucksters would sell to gullible people, that was snake oil.
Right. So, we really are at the snake oil stage of social media in understanding our data. We don’t know what’s in your service, and you’re just asking us to trust you, and then there might be all sorts of toxic nastiness that we’re basically putting into our digital selves, and we’re completely unaware of it. Which brings me to the regulation discussion, which is being burgeoning right now. I don’t know how serious it is around, hey Facebook needs to … Let’s take it away from just Facebook, but just say giant digital companies that have a lot of data about people are inevitably going to face further controls as we start to get away from the experimental wild west part of digital services, and it becomes more of an aspect of our lives that, not quite a commodity, or utility, but more approaching that.
I think the public discussion … I think this mess with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is important because it’s amplifying the public discussion about this, which we really need to have. Because once there’s awareness about the problem, it’s still going to be years before we have any sort of sensible ways to deal with data. I won’t even say privacy because that term is so fraught. But at least permissions and how we handle that in a better way. It’s amazing to me that this story has caught fire because it seems so pedestrian in some ways, and it’s been around for so long. I just don’t quite get why this is what is causing so much angst over it at Facebook now when it’s been such a long road to get here. But whatever the case may be, the public’s eye is definitely on personal data and what do we do next. And is there a way that we can create laws, create regulation, create something that at least is more aware of data usage and the bad ways in which is can be abused.
Yeah. I like your invoking the wild west. I mean, these are early days. We don’t even realize it.
We’re norm to thinking this is just the way that it is. I think back to the electric industry and the first 20 years of when electric light was being pumped. If you were in New York City and you looked up into the sky, above your head was a lattice of wires. You could see the sky, but it was through wires, wires everywhere. And those wires would fall. They would electrocute people. It was silly. It was ludicrous. When you see pictures of it today, it’s like oh my god. But for those folks, that was reality. That was life now with electricity. That’s just the way it was. And it took a lot of people getting zapped by live wires. It took a lot of innovation. It took a lot of money. It took a lot of regulation and legislation, but now look, the electric lines are public utilities. Many of the lines are underground, or at least in more convenient and safe ways. And now we’re normed in a way that is pretty much the same for decades, going on centuries.
And we aren’t there yet with social media and a lot of these online tools. We’ve got, as you pointed out, a long way to go.
Yeah. That’s a great description of the early use of electricity, Dirk. And we’re getting zapped right now. We are stepping on the live wires of Facebook. I’m sure our children will have a more savvy understanding about the nuances of data. We’re the generation that just threw our junk up on the internet and just hoped for the best. We’re just gonna start this thing, and throw these things together, and not really think about it too clearly because you can’t. It was an innovative process and there’s amazing benefits to all the online services, but now they’re really reaching maturity and really need a stronger hand for regulation and laws.
And I hope our Congress has the stomach for it because this is somewhat technical. I can imagine some congressman back in the ’20’s or whatever talking about regulating electric wires. It’s much the same unusual technology. It’s people will struggle with how we describe these things and what the best rules are for governing them. But I really do hope our Congress is up to the task because it is needed. My impression is that it’s gonna take a little while longer before we have anything sensible in place.
I think it’ll take a lot while longer. I think they eventually will be up to the task, but don’t hold your breath waiting.
I won’t. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to TheDigitaLife.com. That’s just one L in The Digital Life. And go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, Sound Cloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. And if you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at JonFollett, that’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at GoInvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter at DKnemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. And thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for episode 251 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.