Photo courtesy Colin Koopman

Blessed Be Thy Data

Book by UO philosophy associate professor dives into how data historically changed people 

Sentimental music plays as an elderly man recounts memories of his late wife, Loretta. 

“Remember, Loretta loved going to Alaska,” the man says. 

A beep and a screen reply emerges: “OK, I’ll remember that.” 

The man isn’t feeding this information to a person. He’s telling it to his Google Assistant gadget, which is then logging it for him so he can remember his wife.

Google aired this commercial during the Super Bowl and people took to social media to say how the ad made them tear up. But the commercial also serves as a reminder that Google logs a lot of data about its users.  

The role of data in society isn’t new, says Colin Koopman, a University of Oregon associate professor of philosophy and the director of the New Media & Culture Program. He’s having a book launch at the Knight Law Center Thursday, Feb. 27.

People have been born into data, molded by it, Koopman tells Eugene Weekly. Despite data’s fraught relationship with society, it’s not possible to completely erase databases, so more ethics should be applied in the process, he says. 

In his How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person, Koopman examines early evidence of data and the consequences it has on how we think and express ourselves today. His book looks at those moments when data structures — such as those involved in birth certificates or social security numbers — become obligatory.

For generations, people have been born into databases, he says. And social media has been able to capitalize on the individual’s subjection to data for the past 100 years.

“We’re used to seeing ourselves as data,” he says, “in terms of someone telling us, ‘Here is your file; this is who you are.’”

Koopman says the book is a historical project that looks at the role of data in making up who we are as people — as individuals — because it hasn’t always been that way.

“If you take away the data, there’s not much left through which to live,” he says. “Somebody who’s data-less just doesn’t have a chance in this society that we live in.”

One example he looks to is the birth certificate.

“Everyone has a birth certificate,” he says. “Or if they don’t, they know the burdens of not having one.”

Koopman says that in the early 20th century, a large percentage of the population didn’t have birth certificates.

In the introductory chapter of his book, Koopman writes about a nightmarish scenario of the “information person,” which is a person who loses all personal information — bank accounts, social security number, credit report, health records, birth certificate and so on. But for the average person hundreds of years ago, this scenario wouldn’t provoke any fear.

Of course, many Oregonians are feeling that fear as the state tries to adapt to the Transportation Security Administration demands of the REAL ID Act. 

Koopman’s book goes on to look at different methods of cataloguing information about individuals: the birth certificate, personality metrics and real estate appraisals that create the process in which the controversial system of redlining (the often racially driven denial of financial and other services) occurs.

But we inhabit a lot more data systems than that.

“If you tried to make a list of all the data systems into which your life is inscribed,” he says, “that would be a never-ending task.”

With books out like Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America, people are critiquing the role of “big data” in everyday life. But Koopman says that’s problematic, because it makes the issue of data appear shallower than it actually is.

“If our lives being structured by data runs back for at least a hundred years, then that’s a deep structuring,” he says. “We can’t make surface changes and expect things to get better.”

Erasing databases won’t solve injustices around data, he says. Instead, there should be more ethical databases, utilizing fuller audit procedures, whether it’s a government agency or a corporation that could be unintentionally engaging in racially motivated financial lending.

Koopman says the long history of the dangers of data has two lessons — one good, the other bad. The bad news is that data is deeply entrenched in society.

“The problems feel too new to many people, and so this brings a sense that the knots can still be unraveled,” he says. “If these systems actually go back for a century or more, the knot is tighter, and there is no easy unraveling.”

There is good news, though. The history of data shows the high-tech world of data depends on basic techniques and ideas — even if algorithms and programs make it appear complex.

“But as complex as the latest techniques are, they also depend on some very basic, even rudimentary, ideas and operations that all of us can understand,” Koopman says. “Going back to earlier moments in the development of data systems lets us see those basic techniques that are still very central to highly complex systems today.”

He adds: “Those basic techniques are ones we can get our heads around, our hands around and intervene in if we are committed to making positive change before our data irrevocably change us.”

How We Became Our Data, hosted by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics is 6:30 to 8 pm Thursday, Feb. 27, at 110 Knight Law Center. FREE.

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