The past, present and future of a data-driven and socially networked world

A few pointers to the past, present and future of a data-driven and socially networked world…from today’s New York Times Sunday Review:

The Past: Tom Standage on Social Networking in the 1600s and the lessons we can learn for current debates:

“SOCIAL networks stand accused of being enemies of productivity. According to one popular (if questionable) infographic circulating online, the use of Facebook, Twitter and other such sites at work costs the American economy $650 billion each year. Our attention spans are atrophying, our test scores declining, all because of these “weapons of mass distraction.”

Yet such worries have arisen before. In England in the late 1600s, very similar concerns were expressed about another new media-sharing environment, the allure of which seemed to be undermining young people’s ability to concentrate on their studies or their work: the coffeehouse. It was the social-networking site of its day. …

But what was the actual impact of coffeehouses on productivity, education and innovation? Rather than enemies of industry, coffeehouses were in fact crucibles of creativity, because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas”

The Future: Henry Kautz on “There’s a Fly in My Tweets” on the potential of social networking data for population health purposes:

“MANY important public health questions are difficult and costly to answer. What kind of risks do highly localized sources of pollution, like dry cleaners that use volatile chemicals, pose to the health of nearby residents? Are people with many friends healthier, or do those friendships increase the likelihood of infectious disease? Do frequent visits to public spaces like bars, gyms and restaurants affect a person’s health?

Researchers have been striving for generations to answer such questions, using health surveys of samples of individuals and computational studies of simulated populations. Now, however, the rise of social media and the burgeoning field of data science provide powerful tools to find high-precision, real-world answers with little cost or effort.

The millions of people posting to sites like Twitter and Facebook can be viewed as a vast organic sensor network, providing a real-time stream of data about the social, biological and physical worlds. While people use social media to build and maintain their social ties, the “data exhaust” of their postings can be analyzed to provide an enormous range of information at a population scale. “

The Present: Max Frankel on “Where Did Our ‘Inalienable Rights’ Go?” on the civil liberties challenges of government using the data gathered by tech companies:

“NOW that we sense the magnitude of our government’s effort to track Americans’ telephone and Internet transactions, the issue finally and fully before us is not how we balance personal privacy with police efficiency.

We have long since surrendered a record of our curiosities and fantasies to Google. We have broadcast our tastes and addictions for the convenience of one-button Amazon shopping. We have published our health and financial histories in exchange for better and faster hospital and bank services. We have bellowed our angers and frustrations for all to overhear while we walk the streets or ride a bus. Privacy is a currency that we all now routinely spend to purchase convenience.

But Google and Amazon do not indict, prosecute and jail the people they track and bug. The issue raised by the National Security Agency’s data vacuuming is how to protect our civil liberty against the anxious pursuit of civic security. Our rights must not be so casually bartered as our Facebook chatter. Remember “inalienable”?

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