Lost in a Data-Driven World

I recently came across “Hyper-Reality,” a short film by Keiichi Matsuda. (Watch the video at Vimeo.)

It shows a woman navigating a world of augmented reality. Her visual field is crowded with corporate logos, social media icons, status updates, and menus. Virtual arrows urge her to take certain paths, and messages pop up asking her to rate things and contact people. She has an identity that she builds with points (e.g. “4 city points” for using public transportation). To answer questions like “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” she summons a Google search bar.

Data-driven world with augmented reality

Screenshot from Keiichi Matsuda’s “Hyper-Reality.”

Something goes wrong for her during the film, and at the end it’s comforting to think that security measures won’t ever be that weak. (Right?) In any case, the film isn’t intended as an exact prediction of what our world will turn into. But it isn’t far-fetched. The data-driven world it depicts is recognizable. And people can feel lost in it.

Concerns in a data-driven world

I recently read Data-Ism by Steve Lohr, a solid introductory book on big data for a general audience. Lohr highlights some potential major benefits of big data, which range from more effective healthcare interventions to reductions in energy costs. He also discusses the concerns about privacy, security, and lack of transparency in data collection and use.

  • Who has my data?
  • Who is collecting it, and how and when?
  • What’s the purpose of data collection?
  • What are people doing with my data?
  • How does the data get analyzed, and how are individuals and organizations acting on the conclusions?
  • Has my data been used against me? (Perhaps in grossly unfair ways?)

Matsuda’s film conveys the helplessness of feeling like a fly that twitches in the web of data. The film’s central character seems surrounded by choices – what to click on, who to contact, what to purchase – but they’re superficial. In her world, personal identity has become only a set of data points. She has no defenses to protect the integrity of her self or understand the purpose of her life.

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