We the people who are the data

The instructions "do not fold, spindle or mutilate" used to accompany IBM punch cards, a ubiquitous technology for capturing and storing data for computational purposes up until the late 1980s.

As colleges and universities began to computerize their student records many people experienced feeling like they'd become just a number, just some data in a big machine. Of course, many people - whole demographic groups - had long been familiar with this phenomenon. Some of our worst moments in history include government/business alliances that used "data on people" for a variety of harmful reasons. A single century provides examples from the passbook requirements for Blacks in apartheid South Africa, to the stars on Jews in Nazi Germany, internment camps for Japanese Americans in World War Two, and government files on American citizens during the McCarthy era and the civil rights movement.
Data on people can be used for good (improving health care, educational opportunities, tracking environmental refugees, enfranchisement, targeted advertising) or evil (discrimination, elimination, disenfranchisement, targeted advertising).

The Free Speech movement of the 1960s co-opted the instructions to "not fold, spindle or mutilate" to apply to the humans captured in the data, not just the punch cards.


Nowadays, we are (or should be) aware that both businesses and governments are collecting data on us in ways so pervasive and passive as to make punch cards seem quaint. We also know that we have been complicit in making our data available freely - often in exchange for search functionality, social media connections, retail discounts, or two day free shipping.

Given this knowledge, people who are preparing to work with data - in any capacity - need to think about the ethics of what they're doing. This last week saw the rise of the NeverTech manifesto - in which tech company employees from across the spectrum vowed not to help build Donald Trump's muslim registry (#NeverAgain.Tech) Other tech executives are signing on to commitments to civil liberties. These statements are important, but, really, they are more of a floor than an aspirational ceiling. Refusing to participate in building tools to facilitate discrimination that defy the very principles of religious liberty on which the U.S. was founded 200+ years ago hardly lives up to technologists' self-image of disruptive, risk-taking, future creators.

The generation of digital tools on which we now depend - social media, search, mobile - as long as they continue to destroy our ability to speak freely, to assemble peacably, and to learn, think and act privately are neither innovative nor groundbreaking. They are lazy first generation solutions, avoiding the tough issues of personal agency, liberty, privacy, and civil rights.


We the people who are the digital data, who are excited about its possibilities, and who are dedicated to taking advantage of it must be the ones to dismantle liberty-destroying pervasive surveilled networks and unaccountable third-party landgrabs over our digital selves. We must be the ones to fight for encryption as a fundamental bulwark of civil society, to take on the difficult engineering tasks that encode and protect personal privacy in pursuit of public benefit, and to invent digital systems that align with and extend humanity's highest aspirations for life and liberty.  

We need bold action now to make the digital realm align with the principles of justice, freedom, individual action and collective good that centuries of humans have fought to codify in our most principled democracies. To give up on the former is to destroy the latter.

To defer to decades-old business models, special-interest influenced governance protocols, or difficult engineering challenges is to default on the opportunities we face, to walk away from enticing computing challenges and disruptive possibility, and to choose business as usual. Focusing our best minds and our creative capital on digital tools that destroy civil liberties and threaten employment opportunities while ignoring those that would conserve our natural resources and enhance human dignity, will be to hasten our demise as free, peaceful people.

All of us - creators and users of digital tools - need to get out from behind our willful blindness and acknowledge that How We Use Digital Data is as important as what we do with it. Our digital lives depend on the ethical choices we bring to - and that we demand of - the digital spaces that are substructural to our daily actions. We must now take to the streets, to the classrooms, to our open plan workspaces, to our lawmakers, and to the board rooms to protect our digital rights and enhance our humanity.
  • People need to protect themselves and demand protections in the products they use and from the companies they purchase from
  • We need to insist on government action that aligns with the founding principles of democracy and doesn't toss them aside in favor of cowardly falsehoods about national security or economic competition
  • Organizations and individuals need to use their market power to demand digital products that they can use without compromising their social missions
  • Tech companies, hardware/software makers, telecommunication firms, and app designers need to lead and be rewarded for person-protecting consent, privacy, and security practices, transparency and auditability.
  • Business people need to stop resting on incumbent explotaitive revenue models. Now is the chance for true innovators to demonstrate an ability to produce economic value in line with human and democratic values  
We, and only we, can can lead us into an era in which our human, civil and democratic rights are protected in digital spaces by design and by default.

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