I recently received my first “Discover Weekly Playlist” from Spotify and so far, I’ve really enjoyed every single track. So, does Spotify “know” me?
We have more and more services like this around us – Amazon telling us what other people who bought “this” also bought (or even looked at!), Apple telling us what other apps other people bought who bought this particular one….and so on. This is something which Maria Popova has written about in her excellent Brain Pickings –
I recently found myself in an intense conversation with a friend about privacy — why it matters; how much of it we’re relinquishing and what for; whether it is even possible to maintain even a modicum of control over our own privacy at this point…….It suddenly struck me that our cultural narrative about privacy is completely backward: What we really fear is not that the internet — or a prospective employer, or a nosy lover, or Big Brother — knows too much about us, but that it knows too little; that it fails to encompass Whitman’s multitudes which each of contains; that it reduces the larger, complex truth of who we are to a few fragmented facts about what we do; that it hijacks our rich, ever-evolving personal stories and replaces them with disjointed anecdotal data.
I hadn’t thought of it that way around when it comes to the internet, but she is definitely onto something. The underlying truth of what she is referring to is similar to what I read years ago in Mary Midgley’s “Wisdom, Information and Wonder” where she wrote –
One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them
That observation seemed absolutely true to me in the domain of health care where sadly, far, far too often, “data” or “information” is ALL that is known about a particular patient as individual narratives are dismissed as “anecdotes” or “unscientific subjectivity”. That dominant way of practising Medicine always seemed to me to be just the opposite of how it should be done. Information, or data, can tell you something about some aspect of a person’s disease but it’s a long way from the person’s own narrative.
One of the dangers of substituting data for narrative is the presumption of knowing – I used to say to patients that each of us spends a lifetime trying to really know ourselves (and I’m not sure any of ever complete that task!) so how can I presume to know them from hearing just a little of their story over the course of an hour or so? Frankly, reducing their stories to a few data points just takes doctors and nurses even further away from knowing their patients.
Maria Popova’s recommendation to counter this is to “master the art of personal narrative” –
Perhaps the most potent antidote to this increasingly disempowering cultural shift is to grow ever more thoughtful and deliberate about how we tell our own stories
Thought provoking, huh?
Even when someone uses the personal data we’ve shared to offer us more music, books, restaurants etc, that we may like, I think its best to keep these things as hints. That’s why “discover weekly” works for me – it doesn’t assume the impossible – they don’t know me – but I’m happy to have them help me discover new music. And I’ll use some of their suggestions to continue to make my own playlists.
Where are you with this issue of information, privacy and how we make ourselves known to the world?