Sunday, July 15, 2012

I think humans are just another species

There's a new kind of widely deployed radio tag that is collecting fabulous behavioral data on a common terrestrial species. This database is so extensive it not only characterizes the general behavior of the species but can be used to accurately predict the behavior and future location of individuals!

As a scientist I think this is impressive. Any biologist or ecologist or natural scientist would be over the moon if they had access to this wealth of data on migratory birds, subterranean nocturnal mammals, or endangered snakes. Any meteorologist that had enough data to predict the weather like that would never be able to wipe the silly smile off his face.

But we don't have that data on wild animals or meteorology. We have it on humans. And it makes people furious.

I picked up this story this morning off Twitter from @GrrlScientist: That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker. am i the only one who finds this to be (1) unsurprising yet (2) infuriating?

We had a little discussion about it on Twitter. She doesn't enjoy cell phone tracking data as a thought experiment for data collection on other species. She just thinks government and corporations are going to use this for nefarious purposes. She can't believe I don't think so too.

I am not going to contradict somebody that thinks something bad happened to them because they had no privacy. I am really in no position to judge how tracking behavior affects the world at large because my life is so simple. I never go anywhere or see anybody or talk to anybody on the phone. I will take @GrrlScientist's word for it and use my empathy to understand her anxiety over it.

But at the same time I can't help looking at it objectively. This is an amazing set of data. From an engineering standpoint the implications for usability and planning are huge. Why does everything have to be so negative? I have a lot more confidence in engineers than bureaucrats. I think engineers can get things done. Companies and governments, they are pretty incompetent.

I guess it's sort of like the guy that was incensed about having aerial photos of his house in a government file. I never had any idea that I had a right to privacy in the first place. I've always known exactly what my phone was doing. I keep Google Latitude turned on all the time. My two friends that also use it can always see where I am. Of course anybody else in the world can get that information too with a few extra steps. So what? I don't GO anywhere that needs to be a SECRET because NOTHING is a SECRET, EVER! If anybody thinks otherwise they are delusional. The reason it doesn't bother me is because I don't think anybody GIVES A SHIT. I am not that interesting. Even the people that are supposed to love me and care about me don't give a damn where I am on a daily basis. There is not a single person that I am in contact with that much. I could be dead under a fallen tree for three to five days before anybody would get suspicious because I hadn't been logged onto Google chat. Then they could look on Google Latitude and see where I am.   For me having my phone as a tracker is a GOOD thing.

I'm sorry it's so worrisome for other people. I don't understand it logically, but my empathy is fully engaged. I believe people are upset by this. I just don't relate to the societal implications because I don't relate to society.

My alliance is with technology. If I can provide a data point on the far left end of the bell curve by keeping my cell phone on all the time, I'm glad to do it. 

I expect people with power to do the worst thing that makes them the most money. It's not that I don't trust them, I trust them to do THAT. I'm not sure what people expected them to do otherwise. I feel like it's my responsibility to design a lifestyle compatible with corrupt corporations and ridiculous government. Make myself irrelevant to them. Do a small year. Achievement unlocked.

But as little as I think of The Man, I do have some modicum of confidence that there are wholesome intentions behind the electronics engineer or database designer who set up cell network devices to collect this data in the first place -- to verify how their equipment works and help them make improvements in future designs maybe. Or just because they could. I don't really mind if that's the reason. I would totally do that. "I have an extra A/D converter on this quad chip. What can I connect to it? Oh, how about this signal here? OK, Firmware Guy, can you add another variable to the table and we'll keep track of this parameter too? Thanks!"

Anyway, I'm opposed to demonizing the device or the engineers that made it. I believe in my heart of hearts that none of them intended to "economically, racially, sexually nor religiously manipulate" the users. (Quote from @GrrlScientist) But if people really think that's what's happening with data collected over the cell phone networks it's up to somebody besides electronics engineers to prevent these nefarious deeds. Because (if I'm any indication, and I'm an extreme case so I might not be) the people on the technology side have no insight into that at all. None. We are introverts and we don't think like that. Yes, we know that more CEOs are psychopaths compared to the regular population, but we don't really know what that means. Electronics engineers are very rarely psychopaths. (I read this somewhere a year or two ago but I can't look it up again right now.) Nerds don't know how to manipulate people. Not even a little bit. (@robdelaney on Twitter: Just saw a great panel at Comic-Con, “How to Talk to a Human Woman.”)  So anybody who understands how psychopaths with marketing budgets manipulate people? Do what you can to prevent injustice.

I would like to go back to thinking about how we could use this model of data collection for insight into modeling natural ecosystems and the complex interactions that humans keep tearing up before they even understand them.

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