Data Is Not Mine, Nor Is It Me

“Let me trade you two status updates for a retweet.”

“I’ll share three posts of yours for a half dozen likes.”

These are not conversations that occur in reality, at least from what I’ve heard eavesdropping in the street. The Kids are not yet swapping mentions on social media like their ancestors traded marbles or baseball cards.

This is because tweets, posts, updates, and hashtags are not things that can be held onto and owned. A Facebook update might become a conversation that spans a few days in the comments. Only those trading in digital popularity conserve their posts as valued possessions that can be seen, worn, bartered, used for personal gain. The only value digital archives have for most of us is personal, sentimental. They serve as a haphazard diary.

An update brings shock or regret: “I can’t believe Joey married him.” And then a night is wasted analyzing Instant Messenger conversations during the first semester of college, when everything fell apart.

Social media is billed as an ongoing conversation. Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to connect the world. On Twitter, one can have a feud, praise a salad, make a joke, and bring shame upon someone of whom you disapprove. Yet we also want some parts of ourselves put online to be our private property, like a box of embarrassing notes from high school kept in an attic. Conversations in a chat window should be private, so we think; so should pictures we wouldn’t want our parents to see. Then credit card data or naughty pictures are hacked, stolen, and spread about for public consumption, and everyone must remember nothing put online is private. The told-you-so tech writers will remind everyone about this basic fact again the next time “our data” is stolen by an attack of the Russian hacker hordes.

There’s the reality of Online Life: everything put “out there” is subject to possible manipulation by others. Castle walls couldn’t survive cannonballs; no online security system can possibly keep up with the hackers’ newest offensive weaponry. One’s only defense is staying inconspicuous: if you have little money, you can’t lose much; stay an obscure citizen and it’s unlikely that your naked pictures will circulate the Internet with your name attached.

Someday, maybe the insecurities of living online will make folks realize that nothing we call “data” is ever really “ours.” Pictures, account numbers, posts and tweets and bodily dimensions: they are all abstracted bits of information that cannot be mistaken for one’s own self, for any specific person.

So-called identities, even, have nothing to do with any one human being – it is a person who makes things and experiences the world. There is no “straight white Protestant male” way in which one experiences the world. For any one person, cultural markers certainly can affect what parts of the world may be experienced. Affiliating with any one identity has nothing to do with the experiencing self though, the essential person that acts and thinks – whether red, yellow, purple, or white.

If data determines what you do, you are not free. If our “self-image” is simply derived from the image we promote on Facebook, from the success of our “personal brand,” a product of photo shoots and status updates… your action is determined from somewhere other than yourself, and there’s no freedom in that.

Take a tour of a region where many Amish live, and the guide will invariably tell you that you should not snap pictures of the Plain People. It’s said by the guides that they believe pictures capture the soul. Whether the Amish believe this or not (and it is a belief held by other cultures around the world), the guides may be onto something: if someone’s soul can be summed up in one single photograph, s/he is truly a captive of something so simple as a picture.