Sunday, April 09, 2006

All The People Unforgotten

An age has come where information about an object is more important than the object it describes.

If you know your great-great-grandparents' names, you can go to and find them on the 1880 census. Another website,, has indexed many other censuses, although they are free to view only at the library. Your ancestry is at your fingertips.

You can see your home from the air on half a dozen sites. Type an address into Google and click "Local" and a mix of roadmaps and aerial photos can lead you to your roof.

On another site,, you can see what your home is worth, how many rooms it has, and when you last replaced the furnace.

Three different sites advertise on Google that they can provide a list of the calls made on your cellphone to anyone who wants it.

Add to this the phone surveys, spyware, keystroke collection programs, phishmail, and rootkits that penetrate our daily lives and one longs for boundaries on the world's info-lust. But this is only what's happening today.

What does tomorrow have in store? One up-and-coming technology is DNA-based genealogy. By sampling your DNA and comparing markers with lines of descent, companies can confirm your ancestry. For those who do not know their parents, this is a wonderful step forward. For those of us who know too much about our parents, it's a step toward the time when each person's whole genetic map will be databased and that record will govern their life.

The information pool is very hungry. Our own hungers drive it.

Being able to see online the exact digitized image of a census page recorded on the dusty steps of a poor country farmhouse in 1860, to see this longhand scrawl on my screen, enabled me to correct a misspelling and to connect a missing link to a chain of ancestors that went back for ten generations.

The reward of discovering that my ancestors lived near the state line and misspelled their names suggests that more was afoot than the census reveals. Someday soon I shall drive to that county and ferret out their secrets. Whatever is of record. Who knows what it may be.

Who should know what?

Should our descendents know just how much of their inheritance got spent on bodily fungicides? That data is in the system. It only needs to be indexed to be searchable. I'm sure they'll be charmed when they discover it, just as I was charmed to find the suspicious humanity of my own ancestors.

What should the government know? Should it listen to what we are trying to tell it?

Or should it harvest the traces we leave, come to its own conclusions about our need for fungicide, and perhaps decide for itself that our athlete's foot infection is a social danger requiring special quarantine?

Do we get to decide what it should know? Can we decide what it should do with what it knows? Can we get a handle on it?

Only through our elected representatives, only by our continued attention to their probable malfeasance.

The data presently in the hands of government yearns to be free. Data warehousing connects disparate records into a single row. A process called data mining joins the dry spray fungicide users with the wet spray ones and joins that list to the heavy bleach consumers over 50. Suddenly the group of those who fail to clean between their toes is known. Your name is on a list. It gets shared between departments.

Commercial database vendors would love to add those lists to their pool. When free samples of foot fungicide begin to arrive in the morning mail, you will know your data has been compromised. When your congressman votes strangely, you will know the same for him.

Democracy demands that the people continually take control of their government, again and again. Just as the government is doing its best to learn about its client base (or victim base, depending on your viewpoint), so, apparently, are information age citizens doing their best to learn about the intricate and often hidden inner workings of government. Identifying an incompetent bureaucrat or a failed policy is a game everyone can play. It can only make government more responsive and the world more democratic.

At the same time, your private soul can never be known. We carry the burden of a world that thinks it knows us, but in spirit we are free and unknowable.

Say hello to the unknowable in the next person you meet. It may respond.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our distant descendents will probably analyse our blogs with fine-tooth combs some day, hoping to find some additional nuance, some further speck of meaning.

Dan the comment tester

11:39 PM, April 14, 2006  

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