Laura Dawson, a consulting colleague who is now working as Bowker's primary liaison with its publishing community, recently pointed me to a post by Alistair Croll, "Big data is our generation's civil rights issue, and we don't know it". Croll's work appeared originally on Solve for Interesting and was picked up by O'Reilly Media's Radar blog.
In his post, Croll makes an interesting point about abundance, in this case applied to "big data". When data was scarce and expensive to collect and analyze, "companies had to decide what to collect first, and then collect it." Now that data is abundant and the tools to manage and analyze it are cheaper and widely available, "we collect information long before we decide what it's for."
In many ways, this is a big-data variation on the "context first" theme: When we design content workflows with a specific set of formats in mind, we make decisions that limit what we can do in the future. New tools make it possible for us to create and manage content in more agile ways.
Unlike content management, collecting data before we know its intended uses leaves us open to the possibility that the data will be applied in ways that we would object to under the old order (define the use, then collect the data). Croll contends:
"Now run this backwards. If I know you like these things, or see you mention them in blog posts, on Facebook, or in tweets, then there’s a good chance I know your gender and your race, and maybe even your religion and your sexual orientation. And that I can personalize my marketing efforts towards you.
"That makes it a civil rights issue."
Croll does not appear overly optimistic about the ability of technology or legislation to help us govern unintended uses. Although he doesn't specifically mention the possibility, it struck me that meaningful disclosure might help.
Of course, until not that long ago we thought we had meaningful disclosure in the financial markets. It might be a good time to think less about digital locks and top-down disclosure, focusing instead on giving individuals access to tools that help them see what is happening with their data.