All this data – FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, your GPS location, the texts you send, all of it – it flows together and runs like a river. And when I make a post, it’s like I’ve tossed a stick in the river from one side of the bridge, then I get to run to the other side of the bridge and watch it float away.
Other folks on the bridge, they might say, “Hey! Nice stick!” and maybe they’ll point that stick out to their friends and say, “yo, check out THAT stick, the way it’s floating, that’s cool”. You might even see instant replays of your stick floating away on YouTube, or someone makes up a new something-or-other based on your stick and posts it someplace else. Or not. But eventually, that stick floats on down the river and gets smaller and smaller until it’s out of sight. We don’t see it any more. It doesn’t matter though: we can just toss another stick into the river to watch.
All streams flow into rivers, and all rivers flow into lakes or oceans, and the lakes and oceans get filled with the stuff that floats in to them. Some people just throw a stick in the water. Some people take a lot of time and care, and craft sweet little origami birds, and toss them in the river. Other people dump their waste in the river, with no sense of shame or guilt. And it all just flows on down out of sight.
You might ask yourself, where did my data go, after it flowed out of sight? It’s really hard to dig up a tweet or a post on FB from a year ago, much less two years ago. Takes a lot of scrolling, doesn’t it? Did that data vanish? No, it didn’t. It’s in this ever-expanding ocean down there, at the end of the stream, this cloudy thing I’ve heard called Big Data, and everything that flows into it goes through the Big Data Treatment Plant, to prepare that little stick of data for its eternal swim in the big data ocean.
Sometimes – often, really – someone tosses something into the data stream that’s really relevant, or transformative, or empathic, or insightful, or stirring. That’s the kind of stuff that makes the data stream good and worthwhile. Just as often – maybe moreso – the data stream is filled with banalities dreamed up while waiting at a red light. I am glad that I cannot see everything posted by everyone everywhere. It would be much too overwhelming to have to sift through what it was that the dude next to me at Starbucks just uttered on his iPhone, or the woman behind him, or the man behind her (and so on, and so on). It’s just and proper that we have at least that level of privacy, at the stick-hits-the-water level.
But past the processing plant, there is no real privacy. There are fishing trawlers that travel the Big Data ocean, with their nets splayed wide. Make no mistake, those are special nets – the kind that actually seek out specific fish and catch them. And they take that cold, flapping-on-the-deck data and stuff it into canning machines that package the data up for resale. Over the years, these trawlers have gotten bigger, with better nets, with more storage in their hulls, with faster robots to store and retrieve all the nicely packaged cans of data. The companies that own these cans of fish-data can pile the cans up and artfully arrange them to make complete life-size pictures of… you. And me. And her. And her Mom. And him too.
Most people don’t mind any of this. After all, these trawlers can send you coupons for Taco Bell, or BOGO 50% off at Olympia Sports, or offers to win a free vacation for the price of surrendering your email address. Some people are expert at engaging with the system and actually succeeding at being happy with the results they get, given their investment of time. I’m not much of an exception – I am constantly entering give-away contests involving Marshall stacks or icy-white Stratocasters. As a result, when I read Salon on my iPad, all the ads on the side are for musical gear. What a coincidence! Makes me feel like a fish in a can.
Think I’ll take a walk down to the Charles River, and actually toss a stick into it. Maybe I’ll post a picture…