A few years ago, back when I was devoting much of my energy to developing semantic journalism products that seriously interested absolutely no one in the newspaper industry, there was one thought that could jolt me right out of any nice nap: The other word for the new media business model I was describing was "surveillance."
Because here's the thing: Collecting information is easy, traditional, and essentially inconsequential. Connecting information, however, is the radical act that will either empower or destroy us.
So back in 2010-11, when I was arguing in public that we should consider the atomic unit of journalism to be the fact, not the story, and the rest of the industry was furiously busy not noticing anything I said,, the worry that consumed much of my going-to-sleep time wasn't whether I'd find investors, but whether my hypothetical machine -- Fintann -- would wind up turning into Frankenstein's monster.
The lesson that should be learned by anyone who spends any amount of time staring into the abyss of 21st century networked informatics is that information is not power. Garden variety information is just static. Only connected, useful and predictive information is power. And the richer you make it, the more authoritative and complete your hyper-connected data archive grows, the more absolute your power becomes. Fintann didn't get built, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. From what I've seen of newspaper executives, I don't know that giving them that kind of power would have a civic good.
So when I hear people arguing about The New York Times editorial stance on Edward Snowden, or read civic-minded freakouts about the National Security Agency violating the civil liberties of "ordinary Americans," I turn away in frustration.
Sure, we need to be concerned about the power we give to government. Duh. Glad we're finally having that conversation.
But the public media freakout over NSA data collection misses the primary point of those systems entirely: The NSA's email metadata campaign is designed to efficiently collect and then discard information. Not because the NSA is a civic-minded agency that wants to protect our theoretical privacy, but because your personal email isn't the target of the fucking machine. Your mundane metadata is the shit that NSA machine operators have to shovel in order to find covert organizations.
Granted, at any moment, any one of us could become a target of that machine. But if you're focused solely on the abstract possibility of abuse, you're likely missing the big-picture understanding of what that NSA machine was engineered to do in the first place.
The NSA sucks in massive amounts of metadata because it's searching for a subtle signal (some indication of covert terrorist communication) in a vast sea of static (like me emailing a fantasy football trade offer to my buddy). Got it? The system isn't designed to care about you and your private data. It's designed to efficiently eliminate anything it determines to be not-bad-guy.
Now, compare that mission to the private informatic projects being conducted by Google, or Facebook, or Target, or Amazon, or your local grocery store's rewards card. Because Target isn't looking for terrorists. It's looking for every last dollar it can squeeze out of you.
Google knows where you are, what you search for, what you bought. It knows what porn you stream, what political rhetoric you consume, and -- through G+ -- it can compare that knowledge to your social graph. Facebook is doing the same thing, in increasingly annoying ways. Target uses informatics and inference, based on massive data sets compiled from your shopping and mine, to spot women who've just learned that they're pregnant, and to send those women special offers and coupons for expectant mothers.
Why does Kroger give you a break on the price of orange juice for using its rewards card? Because those marginal discounts you recieve are nothing compared to the value of your data to a company that's trying to sell you and those like you more and more stuff.
And there's nothing wrong with that. In some ways it's nice to have people and companies that anticipate my needs, remember my birthday, treat me like a trusted and valued member of a community.
Until the inevitable day when there is something wrong with it.
Today we're worried about an NSA program that looks big and scary, but really isn't . But the day is coming when corporate control over our information will produce a civil liberties crisis that will make our NSA worries look quaint by comparison That day will come because that day must come, because in the same way that atomic fission was neither good nor bad, smart, unregulated, authoritative networks are neither good nor bad.
The problem with humans isn't that we're inheriently good or bad, it's that eventually some greedy asshole turns everything we learn into a weapon.
So if you're talking about the NSA in the context of 20th century notions of privacy, stop. And if you're making a big wailing deal about government intrusion via the collection of our metadata, prove you're not a nut and devote at least 75 percent of that outrage toward the larger threat: The private, unregulated, unreported, unseen world of corporate Big Data.
I am convinced that connected information is ultimately going to be a boon to humanity, and that it's entirely within our power to write rules for the collection, use and control of the "public" information we all contribute to the commons. But to prevent that power from turning on us, we simply must start a conversation that relates to the actual threats, conveyed in the context of their actual potential for abuse.
Of course, that's not going to happen. But every now and then I like to shout important things into the void, just to heard that echo that says "Forget about him! He doesn't know what he's talking about!"