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The Personalization and Privacy Paradox: How Much Data Collection is TOO Much Data Collection

October 4, 2015
  • Wouldn’t it be great to come home to a house whose heating levels match your desired level, whose lighting levels are ideal from your perspective, but whose energy use is optimal?
  • Isn’t it convenient that Google retains your recent searches so that you don’t have to type in a lengthy url to get back to a web page you visited 5 days ago?

These questions are easy to answer because these are conveniences that make life easier for us… but both of them are indicative of the kinds of “personalized data collection” done by machines and computers that could ultimately lead to a world where machines ultimately define our desires and every message we read on-line is intermediated by an algorithm. Based on an article in today’s NYTimes by Quentin Hardy it appears that at least two CEOs see us headed that direction and have no hesitation to go that way. In “Business Technology Starts to Get Personal” Hardy describes the visions Apple CEO Tim Cook and GE CEO Jeff Immelt shared at a recent conference where they matter-of-factly described a future where personalized technology is used on every technological device and on every piece of equipment manufactured and the information gathered on each individual is fully integrated. This led me to pose these two questions, both of which reflect existing technology applications:

  • Wouldn’t it be convenient for teachers to be able to determine how much time a students spent trying to solve a mathematics question?
  • Wouldn’t it be ideal if meetings held in a conference room could be reduced to writing and disseminated instantaneously?

With education theorists and policy makers touting the virtue of “personalized learning” and the expanded availability of low cost web-based laptops, it is not inconceivable that teachers could require all classwork be done on a laptop and, in so doing, determine if students are spending sufficient time trying to solve a particular kind of problem or a sufficient amount of time writing a five paragraph essay. This would enable all teachers to help the student develop persistence, help the teacher determine the best way to present a particular concept to each individual child, and to help curriculum developers determine the optimal way to sequence the materials each student is expected to master.

A part of the “personalized learning” model is for parents, teachers, and the student to confer to develop a de facto IEP for them. This has been perceived as a daunting task… but with “…(e)quipment and software like whiteboards or conference-call phones record who is in a meeting or tag what was said” the paperwork associated with this undertaking suddenly disappears.

Neither of these potential education apps was described or discussed in Hardy’s article… but the article did note “peculiarities” about massive data collection foreseen by Erik Brynjolfsson,  a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the authors of “The Second Machine Age,” which he describes as a “…book on an industrial world enchanted by computing.”

“With enough data, you can infer drug use or political persuasions,” he said. “These are things that are racing ahead, and we haven’t thought them through.”

There will be benefits like buying a used car and knowing how it was driven and what is likely to go wrong with it. There may also be challenging effects from companies that collect and manipulate their data the best.

Mr. Hardy concludes his essay with this:

If it turns out like the consumer Internet, we’ll be delighted with the rewards of being spied on, even if we don’t know what they are yet.

At a conference I attended recently on climate change, one of the speakers talked about our culture’s blind faith in technology, which he called “technology fundamentalism”. He asserted that many believe there is no reason to be fearful of what we are doing to ourselves by spewing toxins into the atmosphere because eventually we will develop some kind of technology that will mitigate it and we’ll be able to continue living the way we are today. In effect, our belief that all data collection will ultimately be used for benign ends is a form of technological fundamentalism, and like all forms of fundamentalism based on faith, such a perspective requires us to collectively drop our guard.  I believe we should move ahead with technology applications, but we should also heed Mr. Brynjolfsson’s implicit warning and think things through NOW before we collect the billions of objective data points that could ultimately be used as dossiers that limit the ultimate development of each individual’s potential.

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