The Ubiquity of Data: Ambient Awareness and Information Overload
Ambient Awareness. We live in a world of TMI. At the same time that we use avatars and user IDs, we are also putting out tons of information, every single day. As we continue to embrace distributed cognition (the push of thought from internal to external, from personal to shared, as we rely on our networks more and more), interfaces originally meant for one person using it at a time are turning into shared information and interfaces. We collaborate a lot more than we ever have. Certainly, it helps to have, well, help. But we are bombarded with messages these days. And a lot of them are created and spread by us. We are the architects of our own confusion and distraction.
Go to the gas station – swipe your card. Say cheese when the security camera snaps your picture while you pump gas and buy snacks and smokes. Don’t forget to check in at FourSquare. You’ve got to oust the Mayor of the Cumberland Farms on Chestnut Hill Avenue! Drive away, through a toll booth with your transponder, and your license plate will be photographed, too.
Share enough of this information, and your friends will scold you for buying pork rinds and Marlboros. Maybe one of these days, your insurance company will scold you, too. Or maybe they’ll just quietly reassess your risks, get a new actuarial quote, and raise your rates by 1% – and they won’t necessarily tell you they’re doing this, either. Check into enough places, and your route can be mapped. If you’re cheating on your spouse, you’d better not drive your car through a toll booth when you go to visit your paramour.
Is it Really so Bad?
Or maybe it’s all less sinister than that. Maybe your friends contact you because they care – because they see you buying snacks and smokes far too much, and worry that you’ve become depressed. Maybe your doctor sees this activity and contacts you to set up an appointment to check your blood pressure and your cholesterol.
But whatever the motivation is, and whatever the source, one thing is clear: we know all this stuff about each other now. As Thompson, C. (2008, September 5). Brave new world of digital intimacy. New York Times Magazine. [Link] says, “Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it ‘ambient awareness.’
It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for ‘microblogging’: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing. The phenomenon is quite different from what we normally think of as blogging, because a blog post is usually a written piece, sometimes quite long: a statement of opinion, a story, an analysis.
But these new updates are something different. They’re far shorter, far more frequent and less carefully considered. One of the most popular new tools is Twitter, a website and messaging service that allows its two-million-plus users to broadcast to their friends haiku-length updates — limited to 140 characters, as brief as a mobile-phone text message — on what they’re doing.
There are other services for reporting where you’re traveling (Dopplr) or for quickly tossing online a stream of the pictures, videos or websites you’re looking at (Tumblr). And there are even tools that give your location. When the new iPhone, with built-in tracking, was introduced in July, one million people began using Loopt, a piece of software that automatically tells all your friends exactly where you are.”
In The Numerati, Stephen Baker talks about the data that is all over the Internet, and how data miners are trying to gather information to paint a picture of individuals.
That interview is from 2008 – the pervasiveness of intimate data is nothing new.
One of the best-known places where intimate details are shared and reshared is Twitter. It’s become an odd admixture of personal anecdotes and preferences, sprinkled with some news, although the news becomes a proportionately larger percentage when it becomes more sensational or local, as in the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt.
As Hermida, A. (2010). Twittering the news: The emergence of ambient journalism. Journalism Practice, 4(3), 297–308. [Library Link] says, “As with most media technologies, there is a degree of hyperbole about the potential of Twitter, with proclamations that ‘every major channel of information will be Twitterfied’ (Johnson, 2009). Furthermore, social media services are vulnerable to shifting and ever-changing social and cultural habits of audiences. While this paper has discussed micro-blogging in the context of Twitter, it is possible that a new service may replace it in the future. However, it is important to explore in greater depth the qualities of micro-blogging—real-time, immediate communication, searching, link-sharing and the follower structure—and their impact on the way news and information is communicated.”
It’s All Around Us
We get the news about elections or a manhunt or the latest scientific breakthrough, alongside what our friends are eating for lunch, and what they think of the latest Charlize Theron movie. This avalanche, this garbage can full of data comes at us 24/7.
Going back to the initial example I gave, with its combination of voluntary and involuntary data grabs, how can an individual retain a measure of privacy? How can a person get off the notification train? It’s even harder than it was when Baker was interviewed. He says that a person would be able to retain some privacy by paying for tolls with cash. But that’s not true anymore – all toll booths are now under the purview of cameras. Certainly all credit and debit card transactions leave what is still quaintly referred to as a paper trail.
If we are going to try to maintain a semblance of privacy, we’ll need to do it pretty close to home. After all, in the wake of 9/11, purchasing a plane ticket or hiring a rental car by using cash will get you a look-see from the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe we should all just sit at home and order pizza.
But then, inevitably, someone would upload an image of their pepperoni and mushroom pie onto Instagram. We’d know that their cholesterol level and blood pressure were probably about to go up, and we’d be right back where we started.