Facebook, Google, et al: It’s Not The Data, It’s The Context.

ContextsDylan Curran recently published Are you ready? Here is all the data Facebook and Google have on you – an article which should open the eyes of anyone who uses Facebook or Google.

It’s a good article, and it shows how much data people give up freely – who doesn’t have a Gmail account or a Facebook page these days? – but it’s lacking something that most people miss, largely because they’re thinking of their own privacy or lack of it.

I requested my data from the sites – Facebook had 384 megabytes on me, and my Google Data I will get on April 7th since I opted for 50 gigabytes. All this data, though, is limited to what I have done.

It lacks the context. We are all single trees in the forest, and these companies aren’t so much in the habit of studying trees by themselves. They have the data of the forest of trees. That context, those interactions, you can’t really download. The algorithms they have derive data from what we hand over so willingly because it costs us nothing financially.

So, while they can give us our data, and some companies do, they can’t give us someone else’s data – so we only get the data on that single tree, ourselves. We learn only a small amount of what their algorithms have decided about us, and while Facebook has a way to see some of what their algorithms have decided about you, they are not compelled to tell you everything about your digital shadow. Your digital shadow has no rights, yet is used to judge you.

What’s your context? That’s the real question. It’s what they don’t show you, what they have decided about you from your habits, that they don’t truly share. That is, after all, their business.

Know that, be conscious of it… and don’t be an idiot online, no matter how smart you think you are. Everything you do is analyzed by an algorithm.

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Nature and Data Structures (2013)

Cactus Flower Blooms (at night)

I haven’t written much of late as I moved to Florida last week and have been busy networking, job hunting, writing about the journey and taking pictures. I’ll be writing more often.

With the recent return to Florida, I’ve clearly been working on finding work amongst other things. I’ve also been enjoying the flora and fauna because of the good fortune I’ve had in finding a friend’s home a temporary lodging. This reminded me this morning of how often people at Honeywell, during my time there, thought I was goofing off when I walked outside and stared at the trees outside. I wasn’t really goofing off. I was considering the natural structures and finding some assistance in designing data structures for the work I was doing.

Natural data architectures are compelling, simple at some levels and very complex. Almost all of them are built on osmosis, where concentrations allow atoms and molecules to wander through permeable membranes based on pressure – not unlike electrical voltages across resistance or water through a plumbing system. The difference between natural structures and artificial structures is that, as Feynman once said,

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Failed data structures in nature are pretty easy to spot.

They’re dead.

Yet even in death they have value – they are recycled, the essence of the philosophical ‘rebirth’ found in some religions. In a well operating ecosystem, nothing is wasted – everything that is ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ has some worth to the ecosystem or it is quickly replaced.

The flower on the left is a picture of a cactus flower I took last night. It opens only at night.

This can be related to a structure such as a website. The flower has a purpose which, as most would understand it, is marketing. It has a definite demographic for who it is marketing to. I’m not sure what exactly it attracts, but I’d wager it is targeting nocturnal insects and perhaps even bats – but whatever its market, it isn’t the classic stuff that people are taught in school such as bees and birds.

Once pollenated, the structure goes about doing what most other flowers do – something pretty well documented anywhere. But this particular data structure is interesting in that it has evolved over millenia to bloom at night, when it’s cool, when life is more mobile in climates where the days are decidedly hot. It’s a wonderfully beautiful thing that most people don’t get to see because they’re not out at night. The scent is wonderful as well.

Studying data structures like this, looking for hints from nature on how to do something, provides us methods of making a better data ecosystem.

Maybe the internet and social media would be a better place if more software developers stepped outside a bit more often. The days of software architects and developers fearing sunlight have past.