Our behavior is predictable. We leave digital traces throughout the course of our daily (mediated) lives. So accepting the premise that human behavior is not random, the next set of questions is to understand what laws govern our actions. As Albert-László Barabási explores in Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do (2010), human behavior is governed by natural laws and through studying artifacts of digitality we “come to see the rhythms of life as evidence of a deeper order in human behavior” (p. 11).
Featured in Bursts, the case of art professor Hasan Elahi is old news by now but still worth revisiting given on-going debates over privacy and ownership of the data we share about ourselves daily (Facebook being the current headline maker). Following 9/11 he was tracked by the FBI and in an act of creative resistance he made his whereabouts freely available via the Internet. He raises questions of who owns our data? What gives it value? If we share “everything” does it become meaningless in the vast quantity of data?
We can learn from Elahi about how to find humor and art in the uncontrollable. My favorite excerpt is, when asked during a FBI polygraph if he belongs to any groups that want to harm the United States, he replies “I work in a university.”
Barabási raises the ethical issue of the role of research in understanding new information technologies, writing “Technology has outstripped our ability to use it responsibly, and I could not ignore the possibility that the fruits of our research would soon become part of some malicious Vast Machine-like enterprise” (p. 221). Do we take Elahi’s approach under the premise that information loses its value once it is freely available. What then are we “sharing” and via what platform? To me the difference between making one’s life into art and using a commercial social networking platform. Sure we are more connected but at what cost? And, do we have a choice to opt-out? I believe increasingly that we do not.
Then as researchers we have an obligation to understand the place of digitality in our mediated lives.