Alex Dante (alex23) wrote,
Alex Dante
alex23

Water metaphors

I startled a friend today...as part of an ongoing conversation, I told him about Google's acquisition of the near entire Usenet archive a few years back, complete with handy search engine.

If you haven't seen it, take a look. Type "Matthew Trevor" in the exact phrase field and then before starting the search look down to the bottom of the page at the potential date range covered by this search: May 1981 to July 2003. Twenty-two years of people posting pretty much any random thought that crossed their mind about pretty much every topic you can think of and then some...sort of a proto-LiveJournal but without the inherent self-promotion. Curious about what hot topics occupied my mind over the 14 some years of internet addiction I've had? Here, I've even gone to the trouble of doing the search for you.

Let me ruin the surprise: it's mostly comics, Playstation and Twin Peaks.

So what about this is so startling? That within minutes of mentioning this to my friend, I was able to find out that he's held interests in rocketry, ballroom dancing and aquariums (but no dilettantism...yet) over the past eight years. And some of that (the rocketry, incidentally) was embarassing to him.

I share his concern. I'm a big fan of Sartre (and I'm going to do him a terrible disservice paraphrasing his views here) when he stated that being seen objectifies you. The classic example is to imagine you're walking home late one night and you pass a house in which you can see a couple having sex. You stop to look and you instantly objectify them in your world view: they're a couple fucking. You turn to leave and suddenly realise that someone is watching you; being aware of how you objectify that which you see, you know how that person has classified you: you're a voyeur. Whether you turned away as soon as you worked out what you were looking at, or we frozen because one of the people involved was your partner, none of that influences that other person's initial image: you're a voyeur.

A less immediate and more personal example: I read comics, as Google will happily tell you, and have gone through phases of being quite passionate about them. I still do and probably always will while certain authors and certain ideas feature in them. But mention that to the majority of the population and I'm instantly overlayed with the Fat Comic Book Guy from the Simpson's. This used to piss me off like you wouldn't believe, to have comics lowered to the intellectual equivalent of the back of a cereal box by people whose only exposure to the written word was last night's Lotto results. Now, I think I see it more for what it is...it's something that most people know next to nothing about, apart from mild exposure as a child and mocking references in sitcoms, so they address it with the only language they know. But understanding this process doesn't make me any happier about being snap-judged by people, I hate that sensation of dissonance when my perception of self and my perception of their perception of my self are so different. And believe me, I know this happens because of more blanket reasons like race and religion, but even though these issues are talked over and over they still continue to push buttons, so sometimes it's easier to track the process in less reactionary areas.

In Peter Milligan's amazing comic on sexuality and adopted identities, Enigma, a character who was raised without seeing another person describes his first exposure to others: he was surprised to discover they looked just like him except with round blobs on their shoulders instead of the sky... For him, everything he saw around him was an extension of his self, and in a very real and direct way I think that's right. His universe is only populated with his perceptions of other entities, nothing more.

It's interesting that the most iconic of all forms of identification of our selves to others, our face, is missing from our immediate experience of the world. In a way, this might be why we can easily become so self-reliant on others to provide us with an idea of who we are. But when that external image and the internal states don't match up, that dissonance occurs again.

So what does this have to do with Google? What they're sitting on is basically a huge data warehouse that could, with the right tools manipulating the data along the right queries, produce an amazing amount of information (and it's important to stress here the distinction between 'data' and 'information') and provide you with not only some interesting facts about specific individuals but also reveal some slow moving and as yet imperceptible trends.

And if you're wondering how relevant 22 years of nerds arguing over which Green Lantern was the One True Green Lantern (it was Hal Jordan, incidentally) is to current trends, then lets look at it's bastard children. Even discounting the out-there conspiracy theories (can you state, without any doubt, that Microsoft don't cache all MSN messages? That Telstra don't have copies somewhere of all those SMSes you sent where you openly asked someone for something you shouldn't?) there's plenty of reason to be concerned. A number of sites have ongoing 'archive the Internet' projects, which are attempting to provide snapshots of the Internet over time. LiveJournal itself is an incredible opportunity for data mining: 1188683 users with how many listed interests? And that's just LJ, there's now AOL's Journal, Yahoo have something similar, a myriad of other blog hosts etc. How many posts are just quiz answers?

Just because there isn't a search engine to tell me how many LJ users are INFP types with self-image problems and bed-wetting issues now doesn't mean there won't be...and if there's a good enough reason for one to exist, there will be. Now, work that process backwards: how easy is it then to provide a facility to search on a person's name and, by clever working of the data, determine that, yes, your potential employee is one such INFP type...and it looks like he's had an unhealthy obsession with porn from the ages of 16 to...hmm, now. Clearly a weak-willed pervert, not the sort of material you're looking for.

Except none of what is shown says anything real about the person it's referring to. Especially not in the terms they're generally perceived in.

As storage space gets cheaper, more and more data will be stored, which will allow for more and more information to be extrapolated from it. I don't feel like this is paranoia, although I know that's how it'll initially appear. I just believe that if something will benefit someday, even at the expense of others, they'll tend to do it. And I can see all too easily how benefitial this could be.

It's important to realise now, I think, that the Internet is a fluid medium - despite all efforts to restrain it - and that it'll be by adopting fluid identities, especially when online, that we'll be able to slip through the tightest search net.
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