How big data knows more about you than your own family

Most of us are aware that all of our online movements are recorded- every keyboard stroke or mouse click can be traced. Now that we use smartphones for just about everything, a whole minefield of data is being created detailing our daily movements- every txt message, location search, sent email and online purchase is being recorded. What is being done with all this information?

In the advertising and marketing industry, big data is being used to target consumers when they’re most open to suggestion. In America last year, Target sent a teenage girl vouchers for baby clothes and maternity wear. Her father was angered and complained to store management, however had to retract the complaint after discovering his daughter was in fact pregnant (read more).

How did Target know? As explained in ABC’s The Checkout, Target had analysed the shopping records of women on their baby shower registry to determine products women tend to buy when they’re pregnant. They used this data to send out perfectly timed sales offers, even able to guess approximate due dates.

ImageScreen grab from The Checkout: Data Mining. 

This is just one example of many intimate things big data can tell about you. According to The Checkout, companies can predict when you’re moving house, about to graduate, thinking about buying a new car… and that’s just from your purchase history and the information you give out through loyalty programs and other competitions. Pair this with the goldmine of personal information stored on your smartphone, and modern companies have got a pretty good picture of who they want to market to. To make things even more complicated, any number of companies share your information with other third parties.

“It’s great to get advertising that’s particularly relevant to you, but now that companies know more about you and your behaviour than you could possibly imagine, they target you when you’re at your most vulnerable or open to suggestion. It’s not that you’re getting the best products- you’re getting the best marketed products.”
Dr Paul Harrison, Senior Lecturer in consumer behaviour at Deakin University

Just how much information is being stored on us? German politician and data activist Malte Spitz asked his mobile phone operator to share the information it had stored about him. After the company refused, he filed a lawsuit against them, and after the court ruled in his favour, he was sent 35,830 lines of code — “a detailed, nearly minute-by-minute account of half a year of his life” (Ted 2012). If the worst that people could do with your information was advertise specific products to you, you’d be forgiven for not getting too alarmed. However, when we start to consider the possibilities of big data use, it gets a little more scary. Malte Spitz handed over the data on himself to a German Newspaper, which was able to use the data to create a map of the past six months of his life. Paired with online data from Spitz’s twitter, this map detailed exactly where he had been and who had had contacted.

Who is using this data and for what? What could this data potentially be used for?

Of course, many legitimate arguments can be made for this usefulness of big data. It can be used to predict accidents, prevent medical emergencies- according to John C Havens, founder of the Happathon project, an application exists that can predict if someone is going to have a heart attack and sends them an email 6 hours beforehand. Haven’s organisation uses big data to create digital tools that drive global contentment. However, whatever the possibilities of big data, as users of digital communication technologies, we need to be more aware of what information we send out about ourselves.

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Is Social Media a democratising force?

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Demonstrators shout anti-government slogans during a protest against a Twitter ban, in Ankara, March 2014. Source: Reuters

Social media has revolutionised the way we communicate, and has become a platform for discussions on diverse topics, including food, Miley Cyrus and of course politics. The only prerequisites for voicing your opinion online in Australia are access to the internet and a mobile device, and as politics student Ross Dennis so eloquently puts it, “anyone can have a say, including uneducated bigots, spastics, wankers and conservatives.”

In common discussion, uncensored access to online content is considered a necessary element of a democratic society, and social media use is often described as a democratising force. However, what power does social media really have? Lets look at a few examples of interaction between social media and the government.

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring is a necessary topic in any discussion on the power of social media. Online platforms were used to organise protest against corrupt governments, mobilising pro-democratic activists in many Arab nations. Social media is credited with enabling the revolution, as well as bringing news of what was going down to the rest of the world.

Turkey

Twitter and Youtube were blocked in Turkey earlier this year following the leaking of wiretapped conversations involving the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Labelled by Erdogan as “villainous”, the leaked content was presented by the government as a threat to national security, purportedly containing confidential military discussions. The government used this argument to justify the temporary blocking of Twitter and Youtube, which were being used to spread the leaked information.

Whilst sensitive military information could be justifiably blocked if national safety was threatened, the nature of other censored content is a little more dubious. Conversations indicating corrupt conduct were also verified as real- in one instance, the PM is heard “instructing the head of a major television news network to cut short the live broadcast of a rival politician’s speech in parliament” (CNN).

 

Both of these instances paint a similar picture- that social media:

–    Allows citizens access to the truth

–    Allows people to check government power and monitor corruption.

 

Even in a democratised nation like Australia where mass media is less likely to be censored, social media allows greater transparency and the provides a platform for people to express political dissent. Ross quotes the example of Senator Scott Ludlam’s anti- Abbott Senate speech. “It was given to an almost empty senate, one other person in the chamber, and it almost went viral- it has around 900,000 views now,” he says.

Social media also provides a means for people to express opinions and join together with those who have similar perspectives. The broadcast of the recent budget announcement hadn’t even reached completion before people were expressing their annoyance on Facebook and Twitter.

“Social media is a forum where everyone can share ideas extremely fast,” Ross says. 

 

So we’ve established that social media is used in many different political climates as a platform for political discussion. However, are we might be giving social media a little too much credit?

In the case of the Arab Spring, it was instrumental in instigating political change- but would the revolution have taken place if all the Arab people had done was sit on their couch and send a few tweets? Without the tangible actions necessary in a revolution (guerrilla warfare and changes to governmental policy), the actual changes wouldn’t have occurred, just as nobody is ousting Tony Abbott from parliament just because we’re all tweeting about how much we hate his budget.

 

“[The people of the Arab world] for sure have used Twitter to mobilise people, Facebook to share information, but it was not Facebook or Twitter that brought the revolution.” Khaled Koubaa, Arab World Internet Institute (Tunisia)

 

In the case of Turkey, social media achieved what most democratic communication platforms strive for- holding politicians to account and increasing transparency, the “watchdog” for public interest. However, it took action from the country’s high court to eradicate the ban, and Erdogan and his party remain in power.

 

Social media is indeed a champion for transparency and succeeds in providing a voice for the marginalized, however it should be regarded as one piece of a bigger puzzle. Mainstream media still plays a huge role in people’s perception of political leaders, and simply spreading information online isn’t likely to change much without the flow on actions taken by citizens.

Slowing down new media consumption

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The current generation of internet consumers live in a world of “instant gratification and quick fixes” which leads to a “loss of patience and a lack of deep thinking.”

Rob Weatherhead, The Guardian, quoting research findings of a Pew Internet study.

In a world where media consumption is dominated by online media content, attention spans are getting shorter. The amount of content available has increased exponentially, and content creation emphasises faster, low priced (and often low quality) content production.

What are the implications of the way we embrace new media technologies? How can we operate in the new media environment in a more mindful way? One answer to this question is the slow media movement.

The Slow Movement

In 1986, Italian man Carlo Petrini protested the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome. From this stemmed the slow food movement, advocating quality over quantity, thoughtful, savouring experiences rather than mindless consumption.

In real life terms: the slow, thoughtful consumption of quality of healthy wholefoods in the company of family and friends, rather than on-the-go consumption of a crappy McDonald’s cheeseburger.

This movement spread to many other areas of culture, one of these being media consumption.

Slow Media

What does the slow media movement advocate for?

–       Mindful, thoughtful media consumption

–       Quality content

–       Promotes monotasking- concentrating on one thing at a time

–       Social media- connecting people, facilitating quality, in depth discussion

–       Distribution of content via recommendations, rather than advertising

A slow media manifesto has been developed, with guidelines for creating and consuming sustainable and focused media.

To gain an understanding of the ideas surrounding slow media, try reducing your daily media intake- see how long you can go for without using the internet. If this is too difficult, keep a tally of how many pages and links you click on during a single browsing session.