A Penny for your Bytes: The Nature of Data

  • Data only useful when it is overlayed with context
  • Turning blind eye to the right questions because not ready for actual answers

A Penny for your Bytes: The Nature of Data

If you don't ask the right questions, I can't give you the answers and if you don't know the right question to ask, you're not ready for the answers.

Ed Parker


A Penny for your Bytes: The Nature of DataIt is understood that Information Theory started in 1948 with Claude Shannon's “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. Data wasn’t born that day though sure enough from then on we experienced an exponential growth in computing power, communication capabilities and relentless data ingestion.

Data is necessary and can’t be stopped. Wearing glasses signals some sort of eye problem. Sharing a meal with others, tells you about their taste in food and possibly other personal preferences. We emit and receive data all the time and this is really necessary or otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make sense of our environment and orient ourselves through it. All of our decisions, while sometimes not properly informed, are data-driven.

And so the question begs being asked: what is data actually?

I often feel that the current common perception of data is something along the lines of the magical dust floating in Middle Earth and that only some wizards can channel it through their arcane knowledge, mix it with other obscure elements and produce an otherworldly outcome to the marvel of us mere mortals.

Well, nothing further from the truth. Human-quantified information is only useful to humans and this only if it is sufficiently contextualized. In other words, by itself number 75 means nothing and thus has no value. Now, if we are to establish that it’s the number of beats per minute from my heart then we can suspect that, in general, I am healthy.

Here’s the important part: what gave meaning and value to that simple piece of data was to contextualize it sufficiently. That and only that.

Over the past decades a number of interpretations about the nature of data have been the center of rather heated debates. We live under a cocktail of them and this is making it more difficult to address all the malpractices we are too used to already.

The Data as IP approach, considers that “your data is like a song and if someone else is whistling it you should get paid for it”. The problem? This view detaches us emotionally from our data, making it nearly impossible to feel compelled to protect it unless for commercial reasons.

The Data as Labor viewpoint establishes that everytime we interact with technology, say posting a picture or writing a restaurant review, work is generated. This keeps opening the door to deceptive ideas that we can and should monetize our data.

Others prefer to observe Data as Infrastructure, arguing that data is only a means to build services and products. Again, a position where we see data as an external tool that has nothing to do with us.

There is however a more straightforward way to understand data that in fact consolidates all the above propositions and gives us a sense of how misusing data leads to harms: You are your data.

It’s really that simple. All the data collected about you, creates models of yourself.

Data, when properly organized using schemas, generates models that represent you. We call those digital twins.

When you look at data as an extension of yourself, concepts such as consent or data trafficking feel totally different. We may look deeper into all these concepts in future articles.

Some will quickly jump and argue “but that opens the door to selling your data!”.

Well… yes but no:

  • The recognition of ownership does not imply the ability to sell something. I own my brain and yet can’t sell it.
  • We sell ourselves for work on a daily basis. Recognizing the intimate relationship between us and our data would allow better regulation to minimize abuses.

Should the nature of data matter to you? For one thing, it is you. That’s precisely what big tech and all authoritarian governments have understood long ago and why they hoard your data. Or consider any of the nowadays all-too-common data breaches exposed worldwide. In the alleged JPN breach, would you say it would be data from 4 million Malaysians being circulated or rather 4 million Malaysians being exposed naked?

We hear often enough that you can’t get the right answers if you don’t ask the right questions. It seems to me that we asked the wrong questions when we started massively collecting data without understanding its true nature and that along the way we seriously turned a blind eye to the right questions because we were not ready for the actual answers.

A parting thought: Information is power and we currently do not control in effective ways who has access to it; essentially because we grew detached from it.

So what’s next?

Better understanding the nature of data allows us now to dive into who should be taking care of what in the next episode.

Jean F. Quéralt founded The IO Foundation in 2018 as an organisation dedicated to promote, protect and provide solutions for Digital Rights.

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