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As I waited for my phone to charge so I could go for a run, I was struck by the authoritative role of the internet in modern life. Whatever else it does, the online world now provides the stamp of authenticity on many of our cultural activities.
It’s ironic that the primary vehicle for fake news and misinformation is also the same virtual platform that endorses so many of today’s human endeavours. For many of us, something hasn’t really happened until we’ve put it online.
This is often because online tools, platforms and applications can add context and insights to much of what we do. They can interpret and analyse; the internet adds meaning in more ways than one.
Take my unspectacular jog around Morningside this evening. Was it a good run, an average one, or a pretty crap one? Well, let’s look at the data. I achieved a time of 24:25 for the 4km plod, according to the stats, that’s the best time I’ve managed since May. So, a great run, in fact. I’m quite proud of myself now.
When I think back to prehistory (2012 or so), the quality of a run was contingent solely on the time you ran, and how it made you feel. Now, with my smartphone constantly generating data, I can analyse my time for the run and several of its component legs, I can rank my performance. I can peruse graphical representations of my hill climbs, my kilometre splits and my performance trends on the same route.
Now, every run I embark on, has meaning and relevance thanks to the ocean of information that I have generated with my previous runs.
That’s why I cannot possibly go running without my smartphone, a watch, or a web-enabled device of some kind.
With data-science innovations and web-based technologies, we are now able to evaluate many other aspects of our own lives, and of broader society. Education, healthcare and business interventions can all be evaluated and refined using data analytics.
The utterly enormous amounts of data being generated these days – often through connected devices – can only be housed online, in the cloud.
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Social media also adds an element of “meaning” to our personal lives, since our accounts are now often the official, public face we present to the world. The activities we do not post to our accounts – Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat or whatever – those things really did not happen, as far as our public personas are concerned.
What we do choose to post, can then be analysed according to the data it generates – the likes, engagements, impressions, comments, follows and retweets. This is the “relevance” of our thoughts and activities. Our lives can now be measured.
Likewise, in our country’s political discourse, the online world is increasingly where things are given meaning. Many believe the unrest of July, following former president Jacob Zuma’s arrest, was fomented in the social-media Twittersphere. The arrests of several twitter account holders seem to confirm this.
The unrest and the looting took place in the real world, and business owners, workers and residents are living the aftermath in a very real sense. But as for why it happened, what it means and how we might avoid it happening again… Well, you need to go online to find that out.
Much of that understanding will also be aided by data, generated through telematics, connected devices and the internet of things, linked and managed through cloud computing. How many businesses were looted? How many trucks? What was the effect on business sentiment at home and abroad?
Much like we’ve had to do with my road-running prowess, to really understand, we need to go to the online data.
Whether we will eventually be able to reduce every event and experience in life to a set of data remains to be seen. Perhaps there is a moral component to this. Perhaps certain things should not be reduced to a set of criteria, measured, ranked and evaluated.
Data science aids the delivery of services, the evaluation of impacts and the improvement of methods. It will be invaluable in improving the lives of the world’s people.
But those lives need to somehow not be too relentlessly, too mercilessly datafied. Our data will surely confirm that we are each unique, but then we knew that already. Through experience, not measurement.