Nothing Is Free

The media is alight with Facebook, Google, Amazon etc. Data, data, data. My data, my personal data, not ‘your’ data to have available for third parties like, say, Cambridge Analytica. There is a huge amount of shaming of the data collectors going on and some of it is just not accurate, nor correct.

There is a glaring issue here, so stop, take a deep-breath and unpack this a bit.

  • Present Currency

We are accustomed to exchanging money for goods and services. These days we do a lot of electronic transacting and when it came in (and credit cards too) it was the devil’s work. We were all going to be swindled, indebted and generally life would end as we know it. Some of my more socialist friends may already argue that that has happened. Not the fault of the method of money transmission though.

  • New Currency

There are two predominant forms of currency that have emerged from the connectivity given to us by the Internet. Crypto-currencies and Personal Information.

1. We can get our heads around the first as it is a new form of the old. We can gauge the value  and understand it because it is pegged against things we understand in language we are accustomed to.

2. Data as a form of payment , personal data to be precise, is a new thing entirely. The vast majority of which we’d be happy to share in a conversation. Where did you last shop, when, for how long, what did you spend, was it the first store you went into, did you intend to buy anything, have you gained weight, what did you pay with etc etc. A good research study would ask such things. A good conversationalist could probably winkle it out of you. If it is a conversation, then there is a slim chance you’d stick your hand out and say, “Now I’ve told you that, it’s £4.99.” Even studies give a flat fee regardless of how you answer.

  • Something for something

Everyone is comfortable with the idea of exchanging goods for services. Our labour for a paycheque, our hard-earned for some food. That sort of thing. You can’t go to the pub, order a pint and offer to tell the barman your reading habits in return. It has no value to them.  Google on the other hand? What a search engine. I say this coming from the days when Alta-Vista was considered good but required a lot of finagling. Now, in Chrome (the free browser) I just type my query in there. Where is Buxy, how do I make chipotle paste, when is the next train due and so on.

The hours and hours of my life that have been saved from mundanity, the paper saved, the brain space saved etc. However, may people do not put a price on their time. The things that Google and Facebook allow me to do without having to send them money in exchange just beggar belief.

This DOES NOT come free though. Land, salaries, server farms and the like cost old-fashioned real money. That doesn’t materialise out of thin air, these companies have an intrinsic value, reflected in their very high share prices and huge wealth because they have something. That something is you. As much about you as then can tell and the cleverest people to extract the maximum value from everything about you.

EDIT: This video is excellent and I have added it to the post.

  • In conclusion

No one forced you to join Facebook, no one forced you to use Google. There are ways around this if you feel that strongly. Tor browser, secure and untrackable email, cash under the mattress (better yet, go for gold and salt). Expect to pay for the privilege.

Criminals are criminals. Data firms are not automatically criminals. The real criminals want to get their hands on currency – cash, gold, your password, they don’t care – Whether it is swindling you out of a pension or using your reading habits (or lack thereof) to target you in an election. These days they only want your data if it is to get to the other things. Stop blanket-blaming the collectors and, instead, see who is being a criminal.

There is a quid pro quo for all the ‘free’ stuff on the Internet. It is you. You are not the customer, you are the product.

The data genie is well and truly out of the bottle: it won’t/can’t be stuffed back in. Think large-scale environmental disaster as you can’t wish it away or legislate it into not happening. It is done, so consider what you are getting, what you are paying and make the choice yourself, stop blaming other external forces. You chose to participate, and it is not without cost.

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Contextualisation – the Known Knowns & the Known Unknowns

Suddenly there is a lot of noise  about contextualising data. I was trying to explain this to someone when I realised there was a very personal explanation, and it highlighted the dangers of doing this badly

Prejudice. Good and bad.

Prejudice occurs when you take a (often small)  piece of initial data, generally visual, about another person or thing and then add previously acquired data to form a view, right or wrong. We all do it on a daily basis, we’re human and it’s how we work. The problem comes from the quality of the data added to the only bit of absolute visual- in this case – data. Our brains are stuffed with opinions and experiences related to the image and we happily add them. The result takes a piece of raw data, and by contextualising it with additional – possibly poorly sourced and referenced –  data can lead to a very skewed and often dangerous conclusion.

For an example of good and well intentioned prejudice think of the example from the Highway Code about seeing a football bounce into traffic?  The point is to influence how you contextualise that data. The aim is for you to see the ball and immediately think that it means that there is a higher than normal chance that a child will appear chasing the ball. The idea is that inexperienced drivers make not make that connection soon enough so it is a blatant and worthy  attempt to prejudice their thinking. Ball=kid=cover the brakes.

Businesses are slowly waking up to the fact that it’s not how much data they hold but what they do with it that matters The skill as a person or a business is understanding more about the data that we are turning into facts. The integrity of the data source, how many iterations it has gone through, if it’s been tested, is there enough of it, are all factors that can influence the quality of the contextualisation process. This means not only does the base data need to be clean, well collated, de-duped and generally of a high quality the same holds true for the additional data and processes used to contextualise it. As sentient beings this is an example of how much more sophisticated our brains and programming are over any software program. Think how fast you can take a piece of visual data and contextualise it and then in an instant test your hypotheses, inbuilt prejudices, additional inputs and prior experience and that of others. In an instant you can re-contextualise that initial data and form an entirely different view.

We are seeing the first attempts to do and sell this ability with reference to customer data. The aim is to understand your customer at that moment in time so you can target your offerings or even choose whether you even compete. This is so cool and the people that nail this are going to be v. rich. Why do you think Facebook and Google are valued so highly? It’s not only the data but what the market believes they’ll be able to do with it.

In the meantime, I miss Bush and Rumsfeld mangling the language. It was an easy way to raise the spirits and now they are gone.