In a period of both getting and bidding for new projects a colleague said: “The thing about all these exciting things is that they always end in disaster”. To be fair my colleague had a lot on his mind, he is currently writing a project bid and has just sat through a presentation about a new project we are just starting, it’s kind of a critical time for him and there are a lot of new concepts buzzing around so there is potential for lots to go wrong. Still, the sentence was not uttered until we pushed him over the edge, the edge being that we started to talk about ‘Big Data’.
When I first heard the term Big Data I did not like it, it felt to me like the term belonged to two things: first, a way of describing data being handled by tools that could manage large datasets, things like hadoop and the such. Secondly a buzzword for marketers meaning ‘that stuff in the cloud somewhere’. The former being the one I encountered more in the wild. Now I feel like my colleagues use it in a different sense, perhaps unknowingly, the term here now means: ‘the stuff we all leak that ends up being used to exploit society’.
Following conversations on the ‘big data’ social networks I notice the emergence of many narratives that end up in the harassment and victomisation of vulnerable people. While there is much writing about vulnerable people being exploited by large corporations who have access to big data (see: gamification , PRISM , GHCQ, etc etc etc) , it appears that individuals are also doing a pretty good job of being able to exploit each other. I don’t know my psychology, but it would seem that humans do not do well in large groups, and that there appears to be an emergence of professional victimisers (from Jay Allen’s article) that by using these datasets are able to find figures that they can lead a hate mob against, these victimisers then capitalise by using crowd funding tools such as Patreon to extract funds out of said angry mob. The most famous of these fashionable hate narratives, as pointed out by Jay, is the anti-feminist one in computer gaming, a cry that any female who complains about mistreatment is a professional victim. I’m not going in to #gamergate or other hate campaigns here but Jay’s article is a good description of how these hate leaders jump on the group think bandwagon and use crowd funding tools to turn a hobby of harassment in to a job while ruining the lives of their targets.
The reason I am blogging about this issue is because I haven’t quite thought it through yet and blogging helps to make the picture clearer in my mind, but I think the issue is a problem in how we are managing and digesting Big Data. This problem applies to us all and not just the large corporations. The problem of ‘professional hate preachers’ is just one case in which people are being manipulated by big data to profit certain people while ruining the lives of others. Group think in Big Data is somehow fueling doxing, cyber-vigilantism, hacktivism, cyber-bullying, public shaming etc and it feels like the big corporations who build their models around our data are making these things feel culturally acceptable.
Funnily enough the reason I sat down to write this post is not the 500 words I already have on my screen, in fact it was in a completely different thing that got me here (but as a tutor used to say, “always start your posts with the last thing you thought”). I sat down to blog after reading that Brian Kelly posted on Microsoft adapting the first international privacy standard . I think this is very interesting and a piece of news worth highlighting. I am recently starting to get to grips with Microsoft development tools and services. I cut my programming teeth on Microsoft IDEs about 15 years ago, and while I kind of left Windows for the LAMP stack I have recently found the developments in the IDEs, Azure, 365, Windows 10 and Lumia tempting me back. Part of this temptation stems from the fact that the entry cost, particularly for those enrolled in a University course, is very low and yet there doesn’t feel like there is a part of the ecosystem where you have to compromise your privacy in the same way you do with Amazon or Google tools. Microsoft’s quick jump to support the privacy standard feels like it backs up my feeling, but also feels like a shot at the business models of companies offering similar products, the business models I feel are validating the way professional victomisers are working.
The post got me thinking about how things have changed in 20 years. Would we really have thought that advertising companies would be leading the tech industry all that time ago? What are the real drawbacks to them leading technological developments? Microsofts announcement may be a sign that they see the privacy battle as a place to strengthen their business model and they may be right. It got me thinking about big data and the comment that these things end in disaster. Why do we need big data? I can think of many cases where large datasets are invaluable, but these cases are not the cases that I see on consultancy sites tell me that I need big data.
Thinking about the way technology has changed in 20 years made me think about the humble webpage. Why do we store data about our users at all? Couldn’t most storage be local, or at least stored in individuals datastore owned, perhaps even a site visitor owned Azure, as Brian points out it is now covered by the privacy standard. The guys at https://unhosted.org/ seem to think that this is exactly what we should be doing as web developers, we should be storing all user data locally or in a datastore that the visitor has given us permission to use (and is owned by the visitor). The sad thing is that it took me about an hour to get my head around what they were saying because the mindset of ‘service owns the data’ is just so engrained in my mind. Reading https://unhosted.org is a great thing to do and really frames your mind around the issue, on one hand you can’t help but think that it will never fly because there is too much invested in ‘service owns the data’, but on the other hand – posts about major players signing up for international privacy standards makes you think it could be a messy battleground.