Drowning in Data

bigdataWe are familiar with regular stories of pollution of our rivers, the ocean, the air, all man made, but what about the digital pollution that is now choking the world.

I was thinking the other day about the fact that I and millions others use ‘the cloud’ for storing much of our data such as photos, back-ups, work papers, music, movies and perhaps financial details which could be a problem in the longer run, and if so what kind of problem?

That little thought led to the realization that our digital progress must also bring with it the by-products of progress, for no progress comes without its price, and in the case of digital pollution we have already seen some of the effects that the internet revolution has brought. Not forgotten is the Facebook scandal when they sold the personal information of members to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm in the USA, and that cost Facebook about US$134 billion in market value when the misuse of user data became known.

It was neither the first nor the last case, and of course we have the ongoing story about Donald Trump and whether his campaign colluded with Russians to secure or influence his election to President. As if that wasn’t enough there are plenty more reports of various platforms being used to influence, spread rumours, fanning violence and false news polluting the airwaves, and last year we saw concerns about addictiveness of on-demand, mobile technology becoming acute. Apple for one was asked by some institutional investors to do something about it because studies showed that students’ ability to concentrate was impacted, and there were links between technology and mental health issues.

Now all of this may be just the tip of iceberg, yet we must not forget what good the internet has brought us, as we are about to start grappling with the digital pollution which has grown to involve our collective well-being. We have seen, and are well aware of, the harm that some individuals perpetrate on-line, child phonography, recruiting and brainwashing terrorists, committing crimes, all with a system that we use every day, that is part of our lives and is embedded in the very structure of our society, and importantly impact our basic values.

In one way the big tech companies aren’t doing anything new by influencing and shaping our online world, companies like Google and Facebook place information and adverts they ascertain you will want or need which is not really any different from what newspapers did 100 years ago. Amazon and large retailers sell you goods and use the data from consumers to drive further sales, but there are fundamental and far reaching differences.

As an example, should you be the proud owner of smart TV of recent vintage then it is most likely that the TV transmit your viewing details, importantly the ads you watch, dates, times etc, to the makers of the TV and the data is then sold to advertisers. Their reasoning is that they cannot make a TV and make a profit with some of the low prices that competition demands, so they need to make it up by other means. This is more likely to be of concern in the USA than here where numbers may not compensate enough to allow really low prices.

When you think of all of the things you can do on the net, create and upload your content, and you imagine the sheer volume of connections, not just Facebook’s 2 billion active users each month, Google’s searches 3.5 billion each day, YouTube more than 1 billion videos streamed every day, then the numbers become unfathomable and the pollution inevitable. Add the data created and flowing through from banks, the stock market, governments, businesses, retailers, anything you can think of use the internet.

The sheer scale and scope of such effects are dependent on increasingly complex algorithms and not forgetting AI systems and that means that we cannot accurately predict what will happen in unknown circumstances.

You may ask who will manage the effects of digital technology and digital experience because right now it is the major internet companies that tend to make these decisions as of right whilst insisting that they make no meaningful decisions at all.

Leaders in Tech treats the growing volume of content as inevitable because the focus is on business, i.e. more users, more engagement, more activity. When growth drop they are punished on the stock price as happened to Apple’s stock recently.

We cannot eradicate pollution, and it is always present to some extent in a system intended to produce a collective benefit, but the time may be here to collectively claim a stake in controlling digital pollution. I am well aware that my thoughts may be echoed by others, hopefully, and that understanding the complexities of digital pollution is a job for someone much younger than I since the problem must be solved lest we drown in the mess.

Being aware is a start.