"We Are Data" Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves by John Cheney-Lippold

It is insane that this book has such a low coverage and poor reviews. It is brilliant. The book explores the way algorithms interpret and influence our behaviour. The book forces you to re-assess what you think data says you are.

We love the idea that data and the compute model follow our mental models for binary abstraction in defining who we are. The “I am male, female or prefer not to say,” is how we believe the systems see us. John explores why they don’t. In the system we are all part-everything based on the data and how you react to media, because of this the machine see you as your behaviour to what they can see and not what you think or believe. This delta between what you think you are and what the machine thinks you are is unknown and often not reachable. We can correct false data but not false interruption.

John quotes lots of people and work we all know, but also many who are not on the usual circuit which makes the book far more informative as it brings in new thinking and ideas. I love the “Or Else” bias and thinking; I had not considered to this level how the structure of the program language brings about bias (page 191). The thinking on “Contextual Integrity” becomes so important and how we might have to code something into the database for that might be a need for new regulation.

John reflections and history lesson on privacy should be read in conjunctions with Jeff Jarvis’s work. The “breathing space to be” in a digital world is an important concept. We need to capture the idea of a digitally engaged “dead-time” or “down-time” where you can be online but the data is not being gathered to profile you for further exploitation; this being very different to InPrivate or InCognito browsing.

There is currently (2019) a big focus is on data sharing and John’s view is very much that the only winner in the data sharing world is the Algorithm or the person who controls the algorithm 


A very good book summary and content write up is on the LSE blog. Great video (2015) pre-book but lots of the core content or there is an Hour long Audio Interview

Profile and contact : https://lsa.umich.edu/ac/people/faculty/jchl.html