I am more than my data

© Jenn Shallvey

© Jenn Shallvey

Who are you in a digital world? Are you the collection of data from all your accounts and devices? Or are you a pattern in an algorithm honed over daily observation you unknowingly opted in to?

I wonder.

Will an algorithm applied to a question know more about who we are than we do ourselves?

It is possible. Consider for example how we as human beings operate in two worlds of awareness - conscious and unconscious. In our mind we are aware. Yet there are some, many actions and behaviours that appear automatic or habitual.

We are already handing over knowledge storage and retrieval to the internet. We have information overload so our minds are self limiting what we can attend to.

Then maybe we also are adapting. Perhaps the next generation - the one raised almost entirely on a diet of data driven online information and feedback - will adapt. Perhaps it will become almost symbiotic. The human being is interconnected with all the data and information. We are a piece of the whole but then also making the whole. For our actions and contribution feed the collection of the data. 

It is almost circular and infinite and perhaps too much for my overthinking self to consider.

Yet I still wonder.

I wonder because I do not want us to lose our sense of individuality for the sake of the knowledge of the whole. I want us to keep true to each of our own unique and wonderful ways. I want us to celebrate independence of people. 

And I see this only happening when we connect. For how are you to celebrate without letting others see you and see others? It again is a logical equation. For me to be an individual and to know I am an individual I need feedback. Not people telling me but my own personal data collection. So in a sense each person is their own data collection point.  

The collections of all these points though is looking for trends. We amass the numbers to get to a single point of commonality. We can group up or disect down. It is the choice of the data analytics.  But for what purpose. This is where it matters.

The trade off of me and you living in a digital world is that I freely give you information about me whether I like it or not. You can then collect my data, and the data of everyone else you want.  It is fun. It is interesting. I do actually enjoy seeing good data analysis. It tells a story that we may not see. It is in fact, when used well, bringing people together in commonality.

For example the easiest data point we could all belong to is are you human or not. I know silly and tongue in cheek question. But there possibly are a few out there who do not identify as human. Let’s though assume that everyone answering our data collection survey say human.  

Then you go to gender. This now brings in a lot of other issues. Beliefs and views about gender identity come into play. So let’s assume that we have male female or other.  You are beginning to segregate. Then there are a zillion assumptions by researchers and demographers that will begin to tell stories about you just because of this next layer of identification. 

So pick another area that is seemingly innocent - your country of origin. Let’s assume you choose the one you were born in even though you may or may not live there. Another issue. Depending on the year your country may or may not even have existed in it’s current borders or even name. You may have been born in a time when your country was part of a colonial empire and now is not. Or you may be part of a nationality that fought or is fighting for independence. Again you start to divide and segregate based on personal views, history and politics. It is not that easy.  

These are seemingly hard core demographics. There are many others.

But what about the data that is not so typical or easily identified by you. You know generally but you don’t personally track even though others do. Take for example your searches on the internet, your location on a map every minute of the day, your social media preferences and likes, your shopping decisions, your health issues and needs, your tv and movie addictions online, gaming, spending. Or what about the data you do track such as your health and fitness, to do’s, finances, diary appointments? Someone somewhere knows your data too. You are not isolated and on your own-ever.

There are people who choose to stay as off line as possible. They don’t provide their data knowingly. But every form you fill out goes somewhere.  And if you forget to tick the no box your details likely go to someone else you don’t know about - e.g. a ‘partner service provider’. 

So what to do? And how does this relate to being me, being you, not getting caught up in all the comparison etc.

It comes back to awareness. It comes back to personal clarity. It comes back to being comfortable with who you are and what you do.

If someone were to come to your door and say they have a report on you what would you do? It would be enlightening perhaps. Perhaps not.  What if they were to say that this report is public knowledge? Then how would you react?

This is the question. This is the test.

I look at the online world for example and how extremely well crafted it is. There are social media ‘stars’ who have images so manicured and modified for our consumption that you would not recognise them in real life. We have apps to make us younger, more beautiful, even a different gender. We can create a persona, an image that is not who we are. Yet the big thing looming in the background is that data never lies.

So maybe this evolution into a digital world is a mixed blessing. By tracking and knowing our data then we have someone who can actually say this is who you really are, well at least in terms of the actions and decisions we make. We can be in a sense held accountable for our decisions and actions.

Yet no one knows who we are on the inside. No one. Yes there are psychological profiles tools that help translate the inner into the outer. Yet these are still not true unless you volunteer to answer the questions and give your truth. Even then it is part of you not all of you.

So we are in two. There will always be the inner me and the outer me. There will be the me that everyone can track, analyse, interpret and make educated guesses about. There will then also be the deep, inner, private, never-shared core me. My feelings, my thoughts, my memories, my knowing. I and only I know what I believe, value and feel. You can make a guess. 

Why does this matter?  Well in a world where more and more is designed and changed to match my preferences to service, sell or cater to me then I want people to get it right. It would be nice if I was understood. 

More importantly the less distance and gap there is between the inner and outer the easier my life will be. I won’t have to work so hard to keep up appearances, go along or fit in. Instead I am clearly me in the way I think and feel and in the way my data tells my story. 

Look at this another way. We all have a story. Our life is a story. What we tell is up to us. Data is also there to tell a story. What it tells is also up to us but less in our control. What would be great is if the intersection of the two was more and more authentic and genuine than fact or fiction. We talk about real and fake news. Well let’s consider how our lives can be real news and not a series of fake news stories.

Easier said than done, I know. I am simply putting out a conversation starter here. I don’t have the answer. I just have some views. Even in my own world I struggle with the intersection. Some things I am happy to share, others not. Some data I freely give, other data I don’t. So even I am still controlling the story.  For now though I am at least working towards more consistency.