The power of geolocation recently caught everyone’s attention with the New York Times story on a dataset of locations from 12 million cell phones over the course of several months. The original piece, and those that follow, raise a series of ethical questions that appear both in the article and in the comments. It reinforces for me, how many companies see all of us just as a collection of data.
At one level, this is perfectly obvious. The products of a free Facebook app and cheap genetic testing and free Google searches are not the platform or information provided to the user. We, the users, are the true products. Or, more specifically, our data are the true products. This isn’t a new observation and I don’t blame the companies for it. They see opportunities and are taking advantage of them.
But there are important historical parallels to recognize. Early stage industrialization saw important criticisms of human beings being viewed merely as human capital. And a critique of later stage capitalism was that human beings should not be understood primarily as consumers of goods. The fundamental question that should emerge from the NYT piece, I think, is the risk that comes with viewing human beings principally as data. We are not just human capital; we are not just consumers; and we are not just data. But it is up to us to notice these risks and respond to them. The New York Times story raises important questions about privacy, consent, accountability and more. But it is also about how we view others and ourselves in yet another era where companies are really good at being companies but humans aren’t as sure of what it means to be human.
Michael Rozier is a Jesuit priest and faculty member in health management and policy at Saint Louis University. His own life is fairly boring, but he likes living vicariously through others’ geolocations. Twitter: @RozierSJ