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Lost in Big Data: Digital Zombies

June 30th 2014

Oak Ridge Super Computer

The latest estimates from market research firm IHS Technology hint at over 6 billion Internet-enabled devices to be produced in 2014 alone, with another 19.42 billion such devices literally flooding the planet between 2015 and 2017.

From whatever angle you look at it, it is a promising market for providers or low-power microcontrollers, sensors, RF modules of many sorts, GPS chips, energy harvesting units, supercapacitors and batteries just to name a few of the component categories that will invariably find their way to landfills if not decommissioned properly or lost in nature.The real-time sensing, data logging and reporting applications seem endless, all tied to specific benefits for the end-user, whether it be in the name of safety, health, efficiency, productivity, security or leisure. Now, if it is good for business too, where is the harm?

After all, only a few years ago, before this broad vision of the Internet-of-Things was even considered possible, every new internet-enabled device was touted to offer a new lifestyle paradigm, always with some form of “freedom” attached to the sales pitch. Freedom to work, to consume, to spend, to play games, to listen to music, to organize your life… All this from anywhere, wow!

While your every personal moves and actions are archived for all these good purposes (detected and recorded through your smartphone, your wearable fitness and health accessories, your car, but also via external video surveillance, credit card purchases, in-store customer behaviour analytics just to name the most obvious), each and every of your actions feed more data to the cloud, where Big Data analytics is the name of the game.

That is where your behaviour and device usage patterns can be merged, analysed by service providers, advertisers, retailers eager to influence your spending habits, city administrators willing to optimize the cityscape and traffic, utility providers encouraging you to adopt predictable energy consumption patterns, health and car insurers tuning your insurance premium in real-time, and certainly not last, lawless enforcement agencies profiling just anyone they please according to opaque criteria.

It is also a place where “smart algorithms” define what the “normal you” should be, based sometimes on your previous habits, but more often than not, based on a behaviour normalized across millions of users.

I think that the mass deployment of sensors pushing feedback data to the cloud, rating our actions against a norm defined by third parties through increasingly unified interfaces, leaves little room for improvisation, let alone for freedom. So many social and financial incentives are entangled into the generated data that anyone deceiving the so-called “smart algorithms” may end-up receiving warnings for corrective actions, or even paying a hefty price, should his or her behaviour and attached digital footprint be judged abnormal by the analytic tools in place

In fact, the more data you feed to the cloud, the less weight your next personal actions will have into this normalization process, making your former free self a dormant citizen, digitally chained up into a reward-seeking behaviour.

As the systems get more complex and intertwined through M2M communications, more prerogative is given to the machines and you'll be less likely to find another human being showing common sense and empathy to interact with, should you want to have some corrections made to your digital profile and access rights

In most cases, your own free aspirations are not relevant in the face of complex machine-to-machine communications and decision processes. Your data somehow gets locked into the processes and out of your hands. That may be fine in an ideal world, but who is to program the ideal way? Surely you would want to set the parameters of this utopia.

“Whoever controls machines controls people too” rightly says encryption expert and Internet activist Jacob Appelbaum, scheduled to kick off the fifth Student Day at next Embedded World in Nuremberg with a keynote on “Free software, free hardware and other direct action for a free world”.

Saying so, Appelbaum who is one of the few confidants of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, warns us about enslavement to technology.

Not long ago, I remember going to a high tech exhibition where all visitors had to register for a secure RFID access badge prior to the show. At the press registration desk, the organisers had me on file, all my details and probably more than I ought to give showing up on their screens, but the smart card printer had a communication break-down.

Waving my passport together with matching business cards and print copies of EE Times Europe featuring my name on the masthead didn’t convince any of the staff that it could be me. Or at least, none of them felt authorized enough to bypass the machine’s slow decision process or endorse any exception to the system’s rules. We had to wait for an IT technician to come to the rescue, of the machine first. As a mere mortal, I was only next on the priority list, second to be trusted even in the face of an obvious machine malfunction. And I consider myself lucky to have had access to a human operator, not an overzealous one (try to convince a machine).

So how about the freedom to be “idle” on the data front? How about sharing your time directly with others, not just with user interfaces and machines?I understand that none of this digital inaction is revenue-generating, unless a device manages to pre-empt your idle time into web-browsing, or your shared moment into a data-streaming frenzy.

But it feels good to sense the real world without digital over-interpretation, without adding noise to our human nature or turning into digital zombies.


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