You are your data

As we begin a new year, it's worth taking a step back and considering where we are in history's big picture.

As we begin a new year, it’s worth taking a step back and considering where we are in history’s big picture.

The industrial revolution had been going on for decades before someone got around to labelling it with a snappy name (it was Arnold Toynbee in case you’re asking). Sure, people realized there were a lot more steam engines and textile factories around, but they probably didn’t realize that school children two centuries later would be learning that they were living through a game-changing event.

I’ll go out on the pundit’s New Year’s prediction limb and say that we too are living in a period that future schoolchildren will flip through as quickly as possible in their textbooks. If the robot schoolteachers monitoring their eyeball movements and page flipping metadata permit it, of course.

I am going to write a series of three columns about the potentially tectonic technological change we are living through, and their economic implications. This one will be about you and your data. The next two will be about robots and mobile technology.

Most of our ancestors went through their lives with an amazingly small amount of information written down about them. As recently as 150 years ago, some of our ancestors lived in societies without writing. Even most people from so-called advanced countries had little more than a brief entry in the parish register recording birth, marriage and death. Maybe there were a few mentions in court record or tax rolls. All the data from Canada’s first census would probably fit on my iPod.

I recently participated in National Geographic’s human genographic project. As I downloaded my DNA into Excel (more about that later), I tried to list all the places that had data on me. There is probably more data on me than all the previous Hallidays combined: tax records, medical files, credit histories, emails, texts, browser cookie records, credit card bills, cellphone roaming, embarrassing YouTube uploads, a dozen shop loyalty schemes and so on.

Twenty years ago it would have been impossible to sequence my DNA. Five years ago it would have cost millions of dollars. This year National Geographic did it for me for $149. They matched my DNA with samples from 650,000 other participants and told me some amazing stuff. It turns out I am quite similar to most people of British ancestry, with lots of Viking, Mediterranean and even a dollop of Middle Eastern gene markers. More amazing, they know the path my DNA took since it left Africa.

On my mother’s side, the ancestors left Africa around 70,000 years ago. About 2,500 generations ago, the ancestors left their friends somewhere around Iran and headed north into central Asia. Apparently my 2,500th cousins are still there. Then around 10,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia, they walked across the Beringian landbridge into North America before settling down in Eastern Canada and meeting some nice French-Canadian DNA.

If they know this much about me, how much else can they figure out? A company called 23andMe, run by the wife of one of Google’s founders, offers DNA tests that provide information on inherited traits and genetic risk factors.

There could be amazing health benefits to all this. There could also be disturbingly creepy downsides. Will future mother-in-laws demand genetic testing in pre-nuptial agreements? Will future employers and insurance companies mine your data for genes linked to laziness and unprofitably premature heart attacks?

It gets worse, or better, depending on your point of view. We are also beginning to leave increasingly big psychographic data footprints. The radio show Planet Money recently highlighted a trend in employment tests. The old resume-and-interview method of finding employees has been notorious forever for how haphazardly it puts people in jobs. So now they make applicants take batteries of tests with questions like, “Which word better characterizes you: ‘consistent’ or ‘witty?’”

While this may seem pointless, the way people answer these questions – and even how long they take to answer the questions and whether they go back and change their answers – can have an amazingly powerful predictive effect on whether people will be good at certain jobs. These questions can have even more predictive power than typical resume questions around education and experience.

Again, there is good and bad to this. It saves a call centre a lot of money not hiring people who are bad at the job or hate it so much they quit. The applicants are also more likely to end up in jobs they are good at. The idea that a computer model will decide which job you get is vaguely troubling, even if the model is more finely tuned than the “Choices” software that the F.H. Collins high school counsellor’s office had in the 1980s.

It is hard to estimate the economic impact of this tsunami of data. Preventing illness and matching the right people with the right jobs would eliminate truly vast amounts of lost productivity. But the economic impact pales in front of the social implications, which amount to a world that is unrecognizable in many ways from the one we knew a few decades ago.

At what point do you stop being “you” and become a cloud of data that algorithms are constantly assessing to predict what you’ll buy, who you’ll marry, where you’ll work and what you’ll die of?

And that’s even before we get to our next topics of robots and mobile technology.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith