Imagine waking up tomorrow to discover your new top‑of‑the‑line smartphone, the device you use to coordinate all your calls and appointments, has sent you a text. It reads:
Today is Monday and you are probably going to work. So have a great day at work today!—Sincerely, Phone.
Would you be alarmed? Perhaps at first. But there would be no mystery where the data came from. It’s mostly information that you know you’ve given to your phone.
Now consider how you would feel if you woke up tomorrow and your new phone predicted a much more seemingly random occurrence:
Good morning! Today, as you leave work, you will run into your old girlfriend Vanessa (you dated her eleven years ago), and she is going to tell you that she is getting married. Do try to act surprised!
What conclusion could you draw from this but that someone has been stalking your Facebook profile and knows you have an old girl‑friend named Vanessa? And that this someone has probably been stalking her profile as well and spotted her engagement announcement. Now this ghoul has hacked your calendars and your phone!
Unsure what to do, let’s say you ignore it for the time being. But then, as you’re leaving work, the prophecy holds true and you pass Vanessa on the sidewalk. Remembering the text from that morning, you congratulate her on the engagement. Her mouth drops and her eyes widen with alarm.
“How did you know I was engaged?” she asks. You’re about to say, “My phone sent me a text,” but you stop yourself just in time.
“Didn’t you post something to your Facebook profile?” you ask. “Not yet,” she answers and walks hurriedly away. You should have paid attention to your phone and just acted surprised.
This scenario is closer to reality than you might think. In fact, the technology and data already exist to make it happen. We give it away to retailers, phone companies, the government, social networks, and especially our own phones without realizing it. In the next few years that data will become more useful to more people.
This is what I call the naked future.
The capital‑F Future was born of the Enlightenment‑era notion of progress, the idea that the present—in the form of institutions, products, fashions, tastes, and modes of life—can and must be continually reformed and improved. This is why our interaction with the future as groups and as nations is an expression of both personal and national identity. As public idea, the future shapes buying, voting, and social behavior. The future is an improved present, safer, more convenient, better managed through the wonders of technology and invention.
But the future—in the form of intention—is also an incredibly private idea. Your future, whether it’s what you’re going to do tonight, next year, or the next time you’ve got a thousand bucks to burn, is invisible to everyone but you. We are jealous guards of the personal, secret future, and with good reason. Imagine if any act you were going to commit was laid bare before the world, how naked you would feel.
In the next two decades, we will be able to predict huge areas of the future with far greater accuracy than ever before in human history, including events long thought to be beyond the realm of human inference. The rate by which we can extrapolate meaningful patterns from the data of the present is quickening as rapidly as is the spread of the Internet because the two are inexorably linked.
The Internet is turning prediction into an equation. Mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists, marketers, and hackers are using a global network of sensors, software programs, information collection devices, and apps to reveal in ever‑greater detail the effects of our perpetual reform on the world around us. From programs that chart potential flu outbreaks to expensive (yet imperfect) “quant” algorithms that anticipate bursts of stock‑market volatility, computer‑aided prediction is everywhere.
Big Data is Dead. Long Live Big Data
Between November 2010 and February 2013, the number of queries related to the term “big data” jumped by a factor of twenty‑nine. That means that if big data were a country that grew every time someone searched for it on Google, it would be the size of the United Kingdom in 2010 and the size of Australia just three years later. It’s a hot topic, but it’s also a phrase that means something different depending on who is trying to sell you what. A couple of years ago, the term referred to data sets so large that the owners of those sets couldn’t derive any insight from them. Big data was a euphemism for unstructured and unworkable bits of information locked away in servers, or worse, on paper. This quality of bigness made those little values on spreadsheets effectively valueless. No more. Go to any IT conference today and you’ll find rooms full of vendors so eager to work with your big data they will be unable to refrain from shoving flash drives into your pockets. Large companies and the government now work with big data all the time.
On February 16, 2012, the phrase “big data” made an evolutionary leap with the publication of a piece by Charles Duhigg in the New York Times. The article exposed how the retail chain Target used records of millions of transactions (and information from its baby registry) to draw a corollary between the purchase of various common items such as unscented baby lotion and pregnancy. When Target began sending coupons for baby supplies to customers who it had statistically deduced were in a family way, one customer’s father had a fit, demanded an explanation, and realized that a soulless company with a lot of records had discovered something extremely intimate about his daughter before she had had a chance to break the news to him. The story was picked up on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, and was repeated on blogs and news stories around the world. Big data went from a boring business idea to a menacing force for evil. It was a secret statistical prescient power that enormous institutions used against the rest of us. The Guardian newspaper’s 2013 revelations about the scope and power of the NSA to surveil communications among U.S. citizens only added to this narrative. We feel we have arrived at an age in which our devices communicate about us in a language we cannot hear to parties we cannot see. Big data belongs to them, not us. We are its victims.
This view of big data is not entirely incorrect. As you’ll find in this book, companies, emboldened by new capabilities, are eager to use the enormous data sets they’ve amassed to squeeze more money out their present and future customers. Governments, too, are using big data to do more with less, which is fine—long as you approve of everything the government does.
But the view of big data as a dark force available only to large institutions is limited. Big data will shrink, becoming small enough to fit inside single‑push notification on a single user’s phone. Most of what we understand about it represents its past, when it was solely a capability that the powerful used to gain leverage over the weak. The future of this resource is incredibly open to consumers, activists, and regular people. But big data is only one piece of a larger trend that’s reshaping life on this planet and exposing the future.
With very little fanfare, we have left the big data era and have entered the telemetric age, derived from the word “telemetry”: “The process or practice of obtaining measurements in one place and relaying them for recording or display to a point at a distance. The transmission of measurements by the apparatus making them.” Telemetry is the collection and transfer of data in real time, as though sensed. If you’ve ever been in a hospital and had an EKG, ECG, or any sort of monitoring device attached to you, if you’ve ever been able to see your cardiac activity displayed heartbeat for heartbeat with the knowledge that that data stream was also reaching the nurse down the hall, possibly even your doctor on his smartphone, then you’ve experienced telemetry. The reach and power of telemetry is what separates the less predictable world in which we evolved our humanity from the more predictable in which that humanity will grow and be tested.
Telemetry is what divides the present from the naked future.
As sensors, cameras, and microphones constitute one way for computer systems to collect information about their—and our—shared environment, these systems are developing perceptions that far exceed our own. Much of what we do, how we live, how we interact with institutions, organizations, and one another takes place online, is readable telemetrically, and leaves clues about where we’ve been and where we’re going. When you make an appointment and save it to the calendar application on your iPhone, when you leave your house and set a home alarm that dialogues directly with your city’s police department; when you activate you’re phone’s GPS, when you use your debit‑procured Metrocard to access the subway and then use an RFID‑enabled security tag to enter your office, you’ve created a trail that’s transparent to anyone (or anything) with access to the servers and hard drives on which that data is stored. How big is that trail? Between checking your phone, using GPS, sending e‑mail, tweets, and Facebook posts, and especially streaming movies and music, you create 1.8 million megabytes a year. It’s enough to fill nine CD‑ROMS every day. The deviceification of modern life in the developed world is the reason why more than 90 percent of all the data that exists was created in just the last three years.
Most of this is what’s called metadata: bits of information that you create (or your devices make on your behalf) through your digital interactions. Only about 10 percent is ever stored permanently and very little of it affects you directly but all of it says something about you. And it’s growing exponentially. There will be forty‑four times as much digital information in 2020 (35 zettabytes) as there was in 2009 (8 zettabytes) according to the research group IDC. We think of each of these actions—the making of an appointment, the purchase of that fare through your subway fare card, the swiping of that RFID‑enabled security badge—as separate ones of no real consequence to us, as big data. Think of that data instead as sensory data, as pinpricks that can be felt or sounds that can be heard like musical notes. The little actions, transactions, and exchanges of daily life do have a rhythm after all, and correspond to one another in a manner not unlike a melody. If you’re like most people, your life has a certain routine; you leave for work at the same time each day; you shop at the same stores on your lunch hour; you take the same route home. Any tune composed of a repetitious sequence of notes becomes predictable. With sensors, geographic information systems, and geo‑location‑ based apps, more of those notes become audible.
You’ve probably never heard this song. In the big data present, it’s distant companies, market, and government forces that pick up the sound of our metadata. But this book isn’t about the present. In the naked future the song is audible to everyone. The devices and digital services that we allow into our lives will make noticeable to us how predictable we really are.
The different ways we relate to the future publicly and personally will fundamentally change as a result of the fact that we will be making far more accurate and personal predictions. Huge areas of the future will be exposed. It will truly be a naked future.
The Future App
Throughout this book I refer to various hypothetical programs or apps like the one at the start of this introduction. These could be cloud‑based programs we access on our smartphones, augmented‑ reality headsets, Microsoft brain implants (the blue screen of death would be literal in this sense). or any future platform. Although there are several apps such as Osito and Google Now that already use personal data to deliver customized predictions, most of the future‑predicting apps in this book are made up. What they represent is the end point where telemetric data combines with processing to present an end user with a snapshot of the future. Though the future apps come from big data, just as we evolved from earlier humans, what they represent is something very different: an individual answer or solution to a unique, personal problem. Predictability based on an abundance of personal data rises in almost direct inverse proportion to private data’s remaining private. So how do we protect our privacy in the digital age?
In researching this book, I talked to people at Google, Stanford, MIT, Facebook, and Twitter; I hung out with hackers, entrepreneurs, scientists, cops, spies, and a billionaire or two. I was amazed by the promise of the telemetric age. I’m a future junkie. I get excited listening to smart people with world‑changing ideas because if I didn’t, I would be a pretty poor science journalist. But when I shared my experiences with friends, family, and colleagues and listened to their point of view, I realized that my reaction was not typical. Where I saw a thrilling and historic transformation in the world’s oldest idea—the future—other people saw only Target, Facebook, Google, and the government using their data to surveil, track, and trick them. They were firmly planted in the big data present, in which it is us against them. They all had the same question: What can you do to prevent all of this from happening?
The threat of creeping techno‑totalitarianism is real. But the realization of our worst fears is not the inevitable result of growing computational capability. Just as the costs of using big data have decreased for institutions, those costs will continue to trend downward as systems improve and as consumer services spring up in a field that is currently dominated by business‑to‑business players. The balance of power will shift—somewhat—in favor of individuals.
Your phone may be from Apple; your carrier may be AT&T; your browser may be Google; but your data is yours first because you created it through your actions. Think of it not as a liability but as an asset you can take ownership of and use. In the naked future, your data will help you live much more healthily, realize more of your own goals in less time, avoid inconvenience and danger, and, as detailed in this book, learn about yourself and your own future in a way that no generation in human history ever thought possible. In fact, your data is your best defense against coercive, Target‑like marketing and perhaps even against intrusive government practices. Your data is nothing less than a superpower waiting to be harnessed.
We still have choices to make. I’ll discuss some of the forms those choices will take. But the worst possible move we as a society can make right now is demand that technological progress reverse itself. This is futile and shortsighted. We may be uncomfortable with the way companies, the NSA, and other groups use and abuse our information but that doesn’t mean we will be producing less data anytime soon. As I mentioned earlier, according to the research group IDC there will be forty‑four times as much digital information in 2020 as there was in 2009.
You have a clear choice: use your data or someone else will. This is not a book about a change that is going to happen, so much as a change that has already occurred but has yet to be acknowledged or fully felt. This is not a declaration of independence from corporate America, the government, or anything else. It’s the record of our journey to this new place: the naked future.