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Lexicon: Our “Data,” Ourselves

In the wake of the Facebook hearings, there is anxiety in knowing how much information is at the disposal of others—and comfort in knowing how imprecise that data can still be

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When a word or phrase suddenly and (sometimes) unexpectedly hits our collective consciousness, you cannot stop hearing or reading it. Lexicon is The Ringer’s running guide to collecting and defining these terms, and sometimes tracing their origins. It’s a never-ending pursuit, but one we’re happy to entertain.

This week, in two interminable congressional hearings, lawmakers questioned Facebook CEO and water conservationist Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s uses and abuses of Americans’ personal data. The grilling took over nine hours, and was difficult to watch without the occasional mental drift to more pleasant topics. And so I kept thinking of the classic 2003 Jim Carrey fantasy comedy Bruce Almighty. As members of the Senate and House repeatedly asked about the whereabouts of their data, I thought of the part of the movie when God (Morgan Freeman) shows Bruce (Carrey) his life, represented as a vast file cabinet cataloging his actions, thoughts, and dreams. Bruce, dazed and dismayed, cannot control the voluminous index detailing who he has been.

The congressional question-askers, in their bewilderment and agitation, reminded me of Bruce as he careened around, in thrall to seemingly infinite information. It was not so long ago that “data” was computer science jargon, a way of describing information transmitted digitally. The word comes to us from Latin; it originally meant facts that have been stated. The root, d0-, means “to give.” Today, though, it most often refers to something taken from people. Personal data, as we know and fear it in 2018, is an existence distilled into potential purchasing power, then distributed. People reduced to pixels. What should be benign — details about ourselves — becomes sinister, because it no longer belongs to us. Data exists only in bulk; the singular, “datum,” is rarely used, because data is an accumulation that builds meaning in aggregate. One fact about a person is information. Thousands can be a weapon. Together, these pixels can give us away.

Throughout the hearings, lawmakers asked Zuckerberg what had become of our personal data, with varying levels of alarm. It was an overdue inquisition. Facebook has built a monopolistic media and advertising empire by collecting and monetizing data about its users, and it has frequently been opaque about the exact dimensions of its surveillance project. The congressional showdown was the result of more than a decade of recklessness with that data, a perfunctory habit of asking for forgiveness rather than permission. The catalyzing scandal, in which a political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica had provided the Trump campaign with personal data surreptitiously collected from Facebook users, was notable as much for the fact that it showed how Facebook worked as it proved that it had transgressed. This is because the transgression is the work. Facebook is not able to leverage simple, public facts about people. It has to combine those facts with information not easily gleaned elsewhere, turning a pointillist sketch of a person into a consumer profile. Our data is used to create unsettlingly detailed outlines of human beings, and it is composed of what we do and how we present ourselves both on and off the internet — where we live, what we buy, who we know, how we interact with one another.

In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation, which takes effect May 25, is meant to protect privacy by limiting how Facebook and other tech companies use data. When pressed on Capitol Hill, Zuckerberg said Facebook would extend those protections to users beyond the European Union, but then backtracked and implied that Facebook might treat data differently depending on the region, as each country has distinct laws around how to use personal data, and varied definitions of private and public. Zuckerberg also stressed that the Facebook “community” did, in fact, have control of their own personal data, a pleasant-sounding and easily disproved falsehood. We do not have control over our data, which is as discombobulating a sensation as taking a ride on a celestial file cabinet.

Still, data is an imperfect summary, adequate for serving up uncannily targeted ads on the internet but often wildly off base at capturing who a person really is. One element of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that has been frequently overlooked is that the type of “psychographic targeting” that the company hyped up was only spottily effective, at best. “Cambridge Analytica’s data theft and targeting efforts probably didn’t even work, but Facebook should be embarrassed anyhow,” former Facebook employee Antonio García Martínez explained for Wired. It is deeply unsettling that Cambridge Analytica was able to gain access to such a high volume of personal information about millions of people, but it is notable that it might not have played any significant role in leveraging that data to sway the election.

While we wait and advocate for rational data regulation, it is comforting to remember its limits. We don’t know whether Cambridge Analytica was able to help Trump with its data distillations, but we do know that many election analysts drew wildly wrong conclusions with their own data. Moneyball be damned, careful data analytics can’t always predict the best athletic performances. Data interpreted incorrectly can make us more ignorant about the world, while data interpreted correctly can still be useless. People can often be predictable, as much as it pains us to admit. But on the whole, the lives we lead can diverge dramatically from prediction models, and cannot be filed away neatly. While “data” has come to operate as a symbol of who we are and what we have lost online, it is yet unable to contain us.