Big data

A Letter

Rose Eveleth digs into the ways in which self-tracking apps exclude women. She begins with the notable absence of menstruation in iOS8’s Health app, something others have complained about. Eveleth unpacks the situation even further, noting that while the app store is full of period trackers, many of them were created by—and, bizarrely, for—men. Nearly all of the existing apps are clothed in pink and include options to alert one’s (presumably male) partner of an impending cycle or window of fertility. Eveleth continues:

Rivers joked that it’s not hard to spot a fertility-tracking app designed by a man. They focus on moods (men want to know when their girlfriends are going to be grouchy) and treat getting pregnant like a level in a video game. “It feels like the product is mansplaining your own body to you,” said Rivers, who is now an engineer working on other projects. “‘We men don’t like to be blindsided by your hormonal impulses so we need to track you, like you’re a parking meter.’”

There is a notion, implicit in the Health app and elsewhere, that biological data is, in and of itself, neutral. Or, really, to take that a step further, that any quantifiable data is neutral. Numbers in spreadsheets and databases look neutral enough, don’t they? But that notion obscures the fact that someone has to design that data: how it’s collected, in what ways it’s connected (or not) to other bits of data, who is notified (or not) of those measurements, in what context the data is presented, and so on. Assuming any data is neutral elides the social and political systems from which it emerges. In this case, that context evidently includes a male gaze sharp enough to see into a woman’s fallopian tubes.

Several updates after iOS8’s initial release, simple period tracking remains off the extensive list of things that the Health app can do. Meanwhile, the same app tracks step data—that is, how many steps a user takes while moving with a device. There is no way to turn this tracking off. There is no way to remove the Health app from a device.

On a related front, Jen Lowe discusses capturing and sharing her own heart rate data. Lowe was toying with ideas of privacy, creating a visualization of her daily average heart rate in an effort to show how a seemingly intimate bit of data can undermine that intimacy: a heart rate doesn’t tell you much about a person. Or at least, she didn’t think it did. In fact, her pregnancy is clearly visible in the data, a point when her heart rate increased and then stayed high. Notably, the data reveals the pregnancy some time before Lowe herself became aware of it. Lowe connects this to Target’s data mining efforts and the arrival of the “big data baby,” the first baby predicted by big data. Beyond the obvious implications for women’s bodies, her tale makes clear the ways in which seemingly innocuous data can be something else entirely.

Sue Halpern interrogates the so-called “internet of things” in The New York Review of Books, noting that “internet of things” is of course a misnomer:

The Internet of Things is about the “dataization” of our bodies, ourselves, and our environment. As a post on the tech website Gigaom put it, “The Internet of Things isn’t about things. It’s about cheap data.” Lots and lots of it.

Halpern then quotes Jeremy Rifkin, who casually waves away any privacy concerns inherent in the “internet of things” by channeling his inner-Mark Zuckerberg and claiming that the era of privacy is over and we are now in the “era of transparency.” But of course that’s bullshit. The “transparency” we exist in now is a performance: who we are on social media is designed as much to obscure as it is to reveal. Moreover, Rifkin’s claim that privacy is a quaint and temporary affectation of the modern era fails to understand how the modern era really works. Writing in The New Yorker last year, Jill Lepore noted that privacy is the flip-side of publicity: prior to the invention of publicity, people had little need for modern ideas of privacy. Rifkin’s dismissal then isn’t about returning us to some pre-modern ideal—it’s about commercial colonization of what remains of our private selves.

As a general rule, beware white men declaring the end of privacy; it is never their own privacy at stake.

A comic book from Al Jazeera traces the recent history of big data back to Google’s introduction of Gmail, and attendant keyword scanning used for advertising. Notably, acceptance of that feature hinged on a promise made by Google: only robots would see the content of our emails (never people). The NSA has made similar claims in response to revelations of surveillance. Again, there’s that assumption of neutrality: sharing information with a robot isn’t really violating your privacy, because the robot can’t judge you or act on that information. Can it?

Elsewhere: at Yucca mountain, nuclear folklore is composed as a warning. On Mars, microbes may be exhaling methane.