What Was Ephemeral is Now Permanent: Our Lives in Digital

by JenniferCobb on 06/10/2011

Ethan Zuckerman, writing today in his blog about privacy and the public sphere, states that in the digital world, “Ephemeral behavior becomes a permanent record.”  This simple statement gets to the heart of many of the issues we are facing as technology becomes a ubiquitous and permanent part of the fabric of our lives.   What was once ephemeral – “ hey, I like that” – has now become a permanent part of our digital record, influencing our search results, the ads we see and the view others have of us.

It is a subtle idea because what we do on-line often feels deeply ephemeral.  As I browse the web, clicking on what entices, intrigues or amuses me, I barely remember where I have been.  The experience feels fluid and transitory.  And yet it is anything but.  The reality is that all of my actions –  the pages I look at, how long I look at them, what I “like”, where I comment, the photos I upload, where I am physically – all are captured forever in a permanent digital trail that is instantly housed in massive data centers, ripe for mining.

The cognitive dissonance between our experience on-line and the reality of our digital lives is a major reason why we tend to downplay the importance of on-line privacy.  The surveillance of our personal actions is so transparent that it becomes easy to ignore.  We quite naturally act in the digital world the way we act in the real world.  That is the critical mistake.

One of the key differences is a problem of asymmetry.  When we meet someone in the real world, we tend to have pretty symmetrical relationships; we have an equal shot at knowing about each other.  If we don’t, then at least the tradeoffs are pretty clear.  The fact that my postman knows more about me than I do about him is an asymmetry that doesn’t surprise me and that I am willing to accept in return for getting my mail delivered to my house.  But in exchange for all the cool tools I get from Google, Google has amassed a huge set of data about me that creates a deeply asymmetrical relationship.   Google know a lot more about me than I do about it.  More, in fact, than any non-digital entity ever could.  (Google has begun to address this problem by letting you look at what they know about you.  Check it out at www.google.com/ads/preferences.  I am not sure this is exhaustive, but it is a start.)

Beyond the fact that it is just creepy that these big companies know so much about us, why does it matter?  It matters because the reasons they do it are not well-aligned with our personal or social best interests.  They collect all this information so they can make money selling stuff back to us through targeted advertising.  Facebook and Google are the largest advertising platforms in history and their relentless pursuit of more data to create better advertising outcomes is having some unfortunate consequences for innovation and for the environment.

In every generation, the best and the brightest flock to where the money is.  Last decade, many of the smartest grads swarmed to Wall Street to apply their significant brain power (think math genius) to figuring out how to squeeze more pennies from trades, raking in billions for themselves and their bosses.  There were the vaunted “quants” of Wall Street. Today, those same brains are high tailing it to Silicon Valley to work at Google or Facebook.  What do they do there?  The mine massive data sets to determine how to better target ads and new services to you and me.  Their new nickname is the “wants”.

The Wants are a big part of the hotly debated new tech bubble around social media.  The primary business driver behind social media is not to make sure we find and cherish each other, but that our social graph can lead to more targeted ad sales and we buy more stuff.  One of the hidden losses in the rush to create value from social media is lasting technical and social innovation.  As Ashlee Vance points out in her piece This Tech Bubble is Different, previous bubbles left a profound legacy of new tools and technologies that spurred genuine innovation and economic growth.  The bubble in the 1980s spurred by Intel, Microsoft and others built the semiconductor and PC industries.  The Internet bubble of the late 1990s created the core web infrastructure that we still use today.  What will this bubble leave us?  Better shopping?

While Vance makes an important point, there is an outcome of this bubble that will have lasting consequences.  That is the creation of Big Data.  According to IDC, in 2009 0.8 zetabytes, the equivalent of 800 billion gigabytes, was stored globally.  By 2020, that number will rise to 35 zetabytes.  A lot of that will be information about you and me, drawn from our social interactions.  As I have written previously, this raises real privacy concerns.  It also has serious environmental consequences.  Datacenters burn 2% of total electricity in the US.   Facebook uses 60,000 servers in 10 datacenters ranging from 10k to 35k square feet.  Google has 36 data centers around the world.  While all of the major players are seeking more efficient solutions, the energy demand is significant and growing every day.

What was once ephemeral is now catalogued, stored and analyzed.  That is not going to change.  What might slowly evolve, with our combined efforts, is an ethical imperative that Big Data, meaning our data, be used for more than selling us stuff.   We need to demand social tools and data analysis focused on applications that are more nuanced, transparent and targeted to solving real social problems.  And we need to understand the impact on the earth of our consumption of both real and digital goods.

Our actions in the digital do have a very different impact than they do in the real.  The data exhaust we spin off as we troll the web is not ephemeral.  It is real and it has very real consequences.  We need to become smarter consumers in this new world.

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