•  3 min read

More Data, Capitalism and Elevators

Going a little more macro into the data space than I did a couple of weeks back, I've been spending more and more time, both at work and at home, reading and thinking about how our data is being used. The more I read, the more I'm convinced that in a lot of cases—maybe event the majority of cases—the use of personal data for targeting information and advertising has moved beyond the point of providing utility into the realm of being actively harmful (and don't even get me started about the on-selling of data to third-party brokers!). Writing in the MIT Technology Review, Martin Giles makes the case that it's time to curb the reach of the big data shops:

(Facebook, Amazon, and Google's) dominance is allowing them to play a dangerous and outsize role in our politics and culture. The web giants have helped undermine confidence in democracy by underestimating the threat posed by Russian trolls, Macedonian fake-news farms, and other purveyors of propaganda.

In Wired UK, Tom Upchurch interviews Cathy O'Neil, the author of Weapons of Math Destruction (which, incidentally, has been on my to-read list for a while), who takes a slightly different approach: a Hippocratic oath for data scientists. There's also this piece in the Harvard Business Review that offers some advice (which is admittedly based around Europe's GDPR) on how marketers in particular can work to regain some of the trust that has been lost. Spoiler alert: do things that benefit your customers and don't be a dick with their data.

It's not all data doom and gloom, however. Recent GDPR-related news aside, there has been a growing awareness of data and privacy issues among the general populace, and this is starting to show in greater pressure on organizations both public and private to either do more to protect people's privacy, or to abandon some of their more privacy-hostile practices.

Progress can be difficult to measure; it often comes in drips and drops, or not at all for long stretches of time. But in recent weeks, privacy advocates have seen torrential gains, at a rate perhaps not matched since Edward Snowden revealed how the National Security Agency spied on millions of US citizens in 2013. A confluence of factors—generational, judicial, societal—have created momentum where previously there was none. The trick now is to sustain it.

On a different topic, the World Economic Forum published this thought-provoking piece on capitalism's greatest weakness:

Value has gone from being a category at the core of economic theory, tied to the dynamics of production (the division of labour, changing costs of production), to a subjective category tied to the ‘preferences’ of economic agents. [...] At the same time, price has become the indicator of value: as long as a good is bought and sold in the market, it must have value. So rather than a theory of value determining price, it is the theory of price that determines value.

'Value' is a concept that is spoken of a lot within organizations, but is generally used—as mentioned above—as a function of price, not as the determinant of price. The full article is a reasonably long (and a little dense) read, but well worth the time and effort.

Wrapping up, I remember reading ages ago about how the 'close door' buttons in elevators are often disabled—I can't remember exactly where, but think it was in James Gleick's Faster—but no-one ever believes me. As it turns out, I was (mostly) right:

When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.
The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.