After leaks revealed that the U.S. government has been conducting secret surveillance of phone records, "metadata" became a growing part of the debate. While the government claimed it never examined the content of calls, it does appear that it monitored metadata – things like the times, sources and targets of millions of communications records.
In part the question became, "Is tracking the metadata a threat to privacy?" In a well-argued response that first appeared in The Nation, Jaron Lanier contends that (in an era when so many people willingingly share information for various purposes), "privacy needs a new definition."
Lanier goes on to offer two definitions of his own: "freedom from being profiled" and "equity with those who use the biggest computers." Expanding on his second point, Lanier writes:
Metadata is a slow, relentless concentrator of wealth and power for those who run the computers best able to calculate with it. The only form of targeting that is absolutely reliable is distinguishing those who run the biggest computers from everyone else. The former group can concentrate tremendous wealth, while the latter group languishes behind.
In talking about the use of metadata, Lanier paints a picture of a state-sanctioned plutocracy:
The rise of big computers is a primary engine of the rise of the 1 percent. Therefore, metadata scheming could probably also be applied to subtly align a population with a government over some years. After a decade or two, the political opposition might be poor, divided, cranky and ineffective.
The issues Lanier raises trump publishing every day, but their relevance within publishing also lends credence to his argument. The strength of a retailer like Amazon emanates from its ability to use a broader set of metadata to better understand the universe in which it operates. Over time, "everyone else" – authors, publishers, smaller retailers, among them – languishes behind.
This isn't inevitable. We can take steps to not be "engineered" this way. One of the most important steps could be a commitment from authors and publishers to developing a more open, equitable data ecosystem around the marketing and sale of content.
I know, it's not quite "the people, united". But as Lanier concludes, "Metadata is not a tiger; it's a barnacle. But don't underestimate a barnacle."