Nowadays, we can gather a lot of data. With IoT (Internet of Things) even more. Is it a good thing that we know everything or should we be scared of misuse?
While writing my previous blog, I started thinking about the benefits of gathering a lot of data and what it could do to improve the service to customers. Although I am convinced of the positive aspects, I am also cautious. A couple of months ago I read a favourable review of ‘The Secret of the Last State’ by Paul Frissen [i]. I got it for my birthday and read it in a single breath. In this book, Frissen claims that the freedom of a citizen lays in the fundamental right to have secrets. From the government we demand transparency, but a government needs to have secrets as well to protect the freedom of its citizens. This paradox intrigued me and I then realized that I had to write this blog.
Why is there a need to gather information? Some examples of where it can be useful are: It can help us to understand and better serve our customers. A customer in the broadest sense: A citizen, visitor of a website or a person coming into your store.
But at the end, as an individual, do you really benefit from it? The one with knowledge has power over the one with less information. And the dependent person has to trust the superior person to behave responsibly. There are two ways to make sure that no one will abuse this power: establish supervisory bodies or total transparency.
This has been a subject that has inspired writers over the years. Starting with the ancient Greeks, with stories about the Oracle and more recent novels like ‘We’ by Jevgeni Zamjatin, ‘1984’ by George Orwell or ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers.
TRANSPARENCY IS A PARADOX
We as citizens demand transparency from our government, but we want our own personal data to remain private. On the other hand, we post and tweet every single detail of our live and accept terms & conditions without reading them, and that is your own choice.
Transparent means that you can see through it. In other words, transparency means that it is invisible. So by uncovering secrets we hide them? Transparent also means translucent, which we would often associate with ghosts and mystery, thus being ominous.
The question is, is it good to have total transparency? Knowing everything, is that a good idea? Every detail of your life available for everyone? In Zamjatin’s novel, even the moments when you have sex are planned and known by everyone. If you know everything there are no surprises. Like endless plains that reach to the horizon. And beyond the horizon, exactly the same…very boring.
When there are no secrets, you could combine forces for the greater good: Open source projects, global search for the cures of all diseases, etc. If we know everything, there is no room for interpretation. Sounds good, but interpretation and imagination are what makes great art and why we are attracted to other people. Even more, if everything is known by everyone, why would we speak at all as there is nothing to add…
You would say, with IoT we gather data. Data in itself is without judgement. And if everyone would have access to everything, everyone is equal. However, this would lead to mediocracy. If you stand out, you could become a threat. On the other hand, what if you choose to be ignorant. This would simply not be tolerated. So at the end, everyone would conform to the standard. Your Like on Facebook is what everyone else likes. Before, the general agreement was that silence is consent. Now, people will ask you, why you did not respond to their post or tweet. And if you do not share, apparently you have something to hide. This leads to people responding in a way that is expected, not because they are intrinsically motivated…So all the data that is gathered, would it have any value if people create an image of themselves and not show who they really are?
HOW IS DATA USED
Maybe there is data that cannot be manipulated? While pedometers should count the amount of steps, if you hold them in your hand and shake them, the count is manipulatively increased. Only if combined with a physical location you would get more accurate data. And how is this information used? Only for your own purpose, or should your GP have access?
Even your internet searches are not without verdict. Most of the time you look for things you know or confirmation of your own opinion and not for new ideas or insights. And who decides what you can find in the first place…
Another example: Shopping behaviour. Every week/month, you buy more or less the same stuff. Let’s say, I get one crate of beer per month. Now, my friendly neighbour has an accident and cannot drive his car, so I offer to get him a crate as well. If I keep doing this for half a year, what would happen. First of all, my supermarket could target me with special offers. But what if this data is available to my insurance company? They would think that I had become an alcoholic.
Of course, when you combine all data from a lot of anonymous people, it would show trends that can be useful. It takes a lot of time and effort to analyse and I question whether it will bring you anything. To understand it, you will bring everything back to best practices and lists that you can score and measure. But if you try to apply all that to an individual, it would mean that you do not respect that person anymore but treat him or her as another grey mouse. This is a border that I think you do not want to cross.
I still believe that IoT and Big Data can be very useful. It can help you increase your level of service if you service devices, because these devices are programmed to respond in a certain way and you can predict the behaviour based on historic data. And even intelligent devices are just machines. But do not trust data when it comes to people or even organisations. Do not interpret data, but validate. Do not assume that what looks to be good for the average person or company, is good for the individual. Ask! In IT, do not expect that a standard service level or standard process fits everyone. Communicate!
I agree with Frissen: You don’t need to know everything and you don’t have to share everything. But there is a definition of transparency that I can relate to: Transparent in a sense of not hiding behind a mask, not playing a role, being authentic.
As an organisation you need to be authentic and sincere. It is not one size fits all, but bespoke. It is not knowing your customers; it is knowing your individual client. If you want to survive you need to treat every customer as the unique subject that it is.
[i] Het Geheim van de laatste staat – kritiek van de transparantie: Paul Frissen – 2016 – ISBN 9789089539632