Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Data Is Power...


From the comments on An Open Letter to Facebook:

"They haven't learned that the new, softer dictatorships do not make the same mistakes as the old ones when it comes to enforcing conformity and rigidity of thought and they have the technology to make that task much easier.

This isn't the fight to give up on. "

Lo and behold, Mr. Overlord -
this comment alone is worth to elaborate another post on!

Your wish is my command...

Since the beginning of time, information has been the key to the acquisition and preservation of power.

Data, in various forms, is the most important resource known to Man. Mankind advances by the incremental discovery, collection, organization and diffusion of data. It is so useful, whether it is put to purposes good or evil. No civilization can exist or survive for very long without a variety of databases, social, cultural, scientific, historical, mathematical, political, religious, and whatnot, that people can access, make use of and refer back to.

This is objectively axiomatic.

I know this because I have spent my entire life swimming in a sea of knowledge, facts, evidence, numbers, compilations, measurements and the extracts mined from this ore of input, collected from disparate sources, refined like metals, stored and disaggregated, poured and labored over, tested, accepted and rejected and continuously experimented upon.

We live by testing what we think we know and then adjusting what we think we know based on the results of the testing. Each test adds to our database of knowledge incrementally, and we build upon it. And even the data that fails the tests is still useful. In the IT industry we have a saying:

"We didn't fail...we've just achieved a negative success."

I'll spare you all the gory details, but when your Overlord was a mere boy of 18 (this was in 1985), several weeks before he had even graduated high school, he was introduced to a world he did not know existed when he walked into an over-refrigerated room in 2 World Trade Center and saw an awe-inspiring sight: an IBM 3081 processor (pictured above) and the accompanying hardware of massive disk and tape drives, tractor-trailer-sized laser printers, a cacophony of beeps and buzzes and the ever-present hum of electricity and the swish of chilled air. The flashing lights, the multi-colored displays, the swirl of activity as humans serviced machines.

He was enthralled.

And what was supposed to be a summer job before the Overlord went off to kollege to study history -- perhaps to even become a professor of such -- became a career. He was hooked. By the time the summer was over, he had excelled in the minor, grunt-work tasks assigned to him, had asked the pertinent questions, took the notes, begged and pleaded to be exposed to more of this wonder, and they hired him on full-time.

Nearly 37 years later the Overlord can boast a resume and accomplishments in the field, working his way up from mainframe operator, to shift supervisor, to Data Center Manager in charge of $2-billion in hardware and software for a Fortune 10 (he worked for a couple of those over the years), later becoming a systems programmer with automation as his specialty, and then entering into the private IT consulting business.

And he never spent a day in kollege, and didn't get his degree until he was in his 50''s...and this was achieved with technology, too -- distance learning (it works, folks).

So, I think I'm in something of a unique position, from the standpoints of IT professional and student of history (because I never gave that up) to be able to tell you, without argument, that I KNOW what data can do and how those who sit in positions of power put it to use, for good or ill.

We tend to think of data being used to observe, report on, co-ordinate or organize civilizations as a relatively recent invention that only came to us with the advent of mechanization and electronics, but this is not true. Data from the ancient world persists and is evident: a pyramid is a by-product of data; Stonehenge is a database we haven't unlocked; the world is littered with obelisks, stela, standing stones, buildings that are inscribed with the names of the Great Ones of the Earth, extolling their virtues, proclaiming their victories, transmitting their laws, and even the remains of the ancient shepherd's hut is full of information left behind in the form of artifacts and bones.

Man has passed on information in oral form, in mythology, in music and dance, in cultural practices and norms for eons. It doesn't have to be written down, it doesn't have to be graven in stone, there is no need for vast libraries of scrolls and books. The totality of human experience is data.

And look at the data they collected! In the ancient Mesopotamian world where the first systems of writing are evident, what we find pressed into clay tablets stored in the ruins of a long-destroyed temple receipts. Census data, accounting records, inventories, correspondence on subjects important and trivial. Even the rotting sandals found in a place like Vindolanda along Hadrian's Wall are data.

 Hadrian's Wall, itself, is data.

Societies have always collected data and put it to all sorts of uses. The clay tablets of Sumer gave way to the scrolls of Ancient Greece in the library of Alexandria. The carved stone monuments that posted the tenets of Hammurabi's Code gave way to the systematic posting of Roman law on vellum nailed to the Senate Doors and posted in every forum. Music and poetry combined to give us the Norse Sagas.

Great human projects, like the building of the Pyramids at Giza or Mazatlan, the construction of the Great Wall of China or the Antonine on the frontiers of Scotland, the irrigation systems of Mesopotamia or the sprawling complex of Angkor Wat, the well-traveled sea lanes or land routes that brought trade, the great armies raised for defense or conquest, the radio, the newspaper, the television and moving picture, Men in Space, are all by-products of this human drive to collect data, to organize it, to make practical use of it, in efforts to co-ordinate, direct, supply, (mis-)inform millions.

The worst dictatorships of history could not have arisen where they not in possession of the means to quickly acquire, access, and make use of data.

The Nazis killed millions with punchcards, for example.

The best example I can give that would be readily recognizable AS DATA to most would be the so-called Domesday Book of the Anglo-Saxon kings. It combines several forms of data collection -- a census, an accounting of property, tax records, location, and much more. With it, the Anglo-Saxons -- and later the Normans -- created the ultimate bureaucratic state of their day, and the data was used to tax, to reward, and to punish, as the kings saw fit.

The book gave the state the power to grant and withdraw, to organize labor, materials and finances, to affect human behavior on a large scale, something all of the empires of antiquity had managed, before they all fell into decay and dissolution. Anglo-Saxon Britain may have been the best-organized state in Europe, post-Roman collapse, and this may have played a major role in Britain's later rise to World Empire.

Data is important. it is ubiquitous. From the day you are born, you leave a trail of data behind you. If you're a bit younger than I am, that trail of data began even before you were born. Your mother had a pregnancy test: the results were recorded. There were ultrasounds and amniocentesis: the results were recorded. You are born: there's a birth certificate, more medical records, and as you age, you generate more data -- from school, your Social Security number, every survey you have ever taken, every car you've registered, your driver's license, every insurance policy you've paid for, every bank account you will ever have, when you buy an airline ticket or get a passport, every time you fill in an application for a loan, a school, a job, every time you buy something and generate a receipt. Every parking ticket you've ever gotten, every credit card purchase you've made, every mortgage or college loan you've been a party to, every tax return you've ever filed.

Your wedding announcement in the local newspaper, your obituary in same.

And in between you will be passing along memories to your children, or better yet, creating new ones with them, and perhaps lessons, as well. You will have left your mark on others in the form of memories, letters, greeting cards, photographs, online posts, and so much more. You are a walking, talking data generation plant. It (data) falls out of your ass all the time without you knowing it or even thinking about it, like a police horse taking a dump on a city street.

You leak data like the White House leaks propaganda.

And because data is so valuable and useful it is never destroyed, at least not on purpose. Even when it is deliberately destroyed, erased, reconfigured, it persists in a variety of forms -- human memory, ruins, fragments of pottery, a grave. Even the ashes of a burned city contain data, at least on the circumstances of it's demise. The trick is to tease the important data out of whatever you are presented with.

What is now referred to as Data Warehousing -- the collection of data for the purposes of creating databases -- is as old as humanity itself. It's twin sister, Data Mining, -- the science of scanning collected data for patterns and useful tidbits --  is not much younger. The differences between the modern age and the days of tax payments recorded on soft clay with a stick is that our modern methods of collection and access are much more efficient, much faster, and the scope has increased exponentially.

Right now, unbeknownst to you and probably not given a second thought, someone -- most likely multiple someones -- have compiled a dossier on you (probably more than one), your life, your family, and everything you've ever done, said, paid for, and whatnot, and it is being sifted meticulously by anyone who is interested in it: advertisers, psychologists, academics, the tax man, your bank, your stockbroker, manufacturers, people concerned with or sharing your interests and hobbies, political parties, your doctor and the scientific community, cybercriminals and internet trolls, and they all have pretty much the same goals -- how to sell you something, steal from you, or how to command you, often against your will, into doing what they would like you to do.

This is why things like Facebook, Google, Amazon, cybercrime, political propaganda organizations, the infotainment industry, the authorities, can be a deadly danger to you. They know you better than you know yourself, sometimes. They can all formulate, plan, attack, defend, cajole, condition, mis-direct, faster than your brain will allow you to react.

You can be targeted, attacked, outcast, co-ordinated, punished, before you even know someone took an interest in you and the process can go on indefinitely, 24 hours a day.

This makes you easy to manipulate. It makes it easier to reward or punish you for your behavior. It is  a means of shaping your behavior.

Big Data didn't just arrive in the last decade or two, it has been here since the very beginning. In the past, people were sometimes able to escape it's more deleterious effects on their lives, but with each new advance in technology, each new iteration of the database, that becomes more and more difficult.

In a day and age where everyone is electronically handcuffed to cell towers or IP addresses, where everyone is possessed of some means of communicating or being tracked through the ether, where the world is full of security cameras and microphones, where the censors or supporters are able to gin up a mob on a moment's notice, when every intimate detail of your life instantaneously and quietly slips from your control into the hands of bureaucracy, the right of privacy no longer exists. The ability to dodge the reach of the government official, the telemarketer, the politician, the political misfits of every stripe, the mob, becomes less-possible with every passing day.

Simply "dropping off the grid" or refusing to use certain platforms does not help. What was once difficult to obtain because it was on paper stored in a dusty and long-forgotten warehouse, is now electronic bits residing on cheap computer storage, easily-accessed, inexpensively maintained and edited, and fed a steady diet of  high-calorie information from every conceivable source.

This is my business, after all.

You can never escape the grasp of Big Data, you can only make your displeasure known to it concerning how they use what they know about you. Attempting to hide in a modern data-driven society by staying away from tech will not avail you. The communes of old, scattered throughout history, communities where people believed they could "get away from it all" and leave the outside world to it's own devices all failed and repeat of the experiment on the electronic basis would probably not fare much better. These communities failed because they could never truly be self-sustaining, but mostly because they only survived as long as the society -- or government -- that hosts them continues to tolerate them.

As I've said, you can't destroy Big Data. You might drive one of them out of business by refusing to use their products, but someone else will quickly fill the void they've left behind, and even with the best of intentions, eventually became that which they have replaced. Just look at the history of internet providers for proof of that dictum -- Telnet is supplanted by America Online, America Online is replaced by Twitter, Twitter is overtaken by Facebook, and in it's turn Zuckerberg's Monstrosity will fall to a newer, better, more-efficient technology, just as the stone axe gave way to copper, copper to bronze, bronze to iron, iron to steel. 

Progress is inexorable and unavoidable.

Even the Taliban has cell phones and social media accounts, after all. Look at how well even backwards, opium-addicted savages made use of data successfully.

The best you can do, at present, is to hold some feet to the fire, for these people have a great and heavy  responsibility that they often fail to recognize, and should not be allowed to forget. Big Data has more power than all the nuclear arsenals of the world, combined, in a certain sense. They can shirk their responsibility in the pursuit of profit (although I'm all for capitalism), but they cannot be permitted to abuse that which they have been entrusted with -- or merely acquired without permission.

If we have to live in a world of Facebooks, then we have our own responsibility to ensure that the Facebooks of this world are held accountable for what they do and must answer the questions surrounding why and how they do it.


Kafiroon said...

I really enjoy reading your commentaries.
That looks like a really nice office.
Compared to what I was amazed by at that age.
Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
A glass-enclosed room at least that large, AC,
flashing lights and a Huge computer.
That played Tic-Tac-Toe with you.
Visited it several times a day as I lived near.

Matthew Noto said...

That is a stock photo of an IBM 3081 mainframe. At the time it state of he art.
It had roughly the same processing power that the average cell phone has.

That's how far we've come. That beast and it accompanying peripherals and infrastructure took up half a floor in the World Trade Center (that's half a square acre). You can now put 1,000,000 times the processing power into a box the size of a refrigerator.

Technology is awesome, that way.

Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate them.

Matthew Noto said...

Note: While reminiscing about the heady days of my love affair with the IBM 3081, I was doing some memory Lane sort of stuff online, and came across this website, Tom's Hardware.

I was amazed at his description of his first encounter with a was just like mine!

Who knew a mainframe could be romantic?

You can read his description here:

mtness said...

Well done, sir!
Thank you very much.

We believe in rough consensus
and running code.

Meanwhile, in another tab: