Saturday, 15 September 2012

The sad case of Hubert Twotter's analytics

Hubert Twotter hadn't been particularly lucky in life. The strings of failed relationships, lost jobs and general meandering through life had left its mark in his lugubrious personality. Failure was an expectation.

Unbeknown to Hubert, his erratic path in life had left its mark in a string of relationships whose existence appeared on electronic maps. What appeared there were not the faded photographs of smiling women, or the crumpled love letters now splashed with coffee stains and kebab sauce. On the maps, everything was fresh and new as if it had only just happened - indeed, as if it was still happening. Short messages on Twitter (of course Hubert's name elicited frequent mentions!) and Facebook had meant that he continuously acquired a large number of connections, who briefly engaged with him until realising he was deeply uninteresting, and then left him. But it all  left a mark on the map, and the map didn't show the crucial moments of miserable disappointment, creeping boredom, irritation and eventual disdain which was the pattern of all of these engagements. On the shiny pixels of the map, everything was fresh, new, exciting - as Hubert might have wished it really was.

Hubert Twotter said very little on Twitter: "I'm eating toast"; "Traffic Jam on the M296"; "going to bed".  The technology compensated for the lack of anyone real to say these things to. But where in real life the meaning of such utterances is never contained in the words but in the space between people that the words flow, all that appeared on the internet were the words themselves; the 'space between people' was a void. Voids, as Hubert was to discover, are dangerous.

On the internet, the 'space between people' had been filled with an unruly bunch of industrialists, technologists, politicians and the security services. They were the ones looking at maps. This was now their business. It didn't used to be. Nobody seemed to plan it to become this way. It just happened. But once the bad people saw what was possible, there was no stopping them, and more and more people got sucked in. This was to be Hubert's fate.

Twitter, to the vast majority in the world, started (and still seemed) as a simple way of sending short messages: "I'm eating toast". Sometimes they were funny: "I'm going to rewrite history. History.". 'Social networks' were built, individual reputations established. For many individuals - particularly academics, politicians, celebrities, Twitter became essential for career viability. If you weren't communicating, you wouldn't survive. So everybody did it. It was a huge success.

When everybody does a thing, that thing is hard to stop. Twitter accumulated vast amounts of data. Not just "how many people have toast for breakfast?", but more importantly, "who do they tell about their breakfast habits?", "what else do they tell them?". The map was a map of connections. Marketing groups could identify rich shoals of fish in oceans of confused consumers; floating voters flashed up like fireflies; intellectual leaders behaved like magnets, with patterns of flux swirling around them like galaxies; and political pressure groups glowed like beacons, warning of incipient rebellion. Even terrorist cells were finding their cover blown. This was Twitter's (and everyone else's) business. It was big business.

The richer the service they offered free to online consumers, the more engagement there was, and the more data could be collected. The analytics services they sold became more sophisticated, and premium analytics products were so expensive, they were only within the reach of the very rich and powerful: usually large corporations and national governments. In protecting these revenue streams, access to analytics for ordinary users was increasingly restricted: only 'official' data streams could be engaged with, and they revealed increasingly little. Expensive litigation was meted-out to anyone trying to subvert the rules.

Hubert was in bed. There was a loud bang. He stared, horrified, as ten masked men armed with sub-machine guns stormed in. He couldn't see their eyes. Only the gleam of their weapons in the sun that  streamed through the window. It made patterns of light in the room as they shouted, aimed. The absence of humanity and the dots of light clustered around his bed was the last thing he would see. But it had been clusters of lights and an absence of humanity which had brought them there in the first place.

1 comment:

Oleg said...

New career as SF writer beckons? ;)