The Database Society and You

There is much commentary right now about Facebook, social networking, and the meaning for the enterprise technologist. All of the tumult over Facebook’s new features (frictionless sharing, the timeline, etc) inspired me to dig out an old post I had written for Huffington Post on what I called the “database society:”

The dominant metaphor of the Cold War era was cybernetics — the study of closed, self-regulating systems. At its heart, George Orwell’s 1984 is a depiction of a giant cybernetic system, like the Soviet bloc countries David Ronfeldt describes in his paper “The Prospects for Cyberocracy.” Some critics of current movements in science and technology such as Jaron Lanier denounce the legacy of cybernetics as something that gave rise to “cybernetic totalism” — a system of beliefs that views all of the processes of life as interactions of information. So is Facebook a realization of Orwell on the level of the individual? Not really, but the reality of the database society is hardly comforting either. If there is a “cybernetic totalism” in Facebook, it lies in our own desire to make our own lives closed, self-regulating systems. The emerging database society reflects individualism, a desire for personal control, and hyper-consumerism. Facebook gives people the ability to categorize, organize, and experience the raw data of their social worlds. These qualities are by no means unique to social networking — it is embedded in the lived experience of everyday life. Everything from iPods to online dating have evolved similar search, sorting, tagging, and categorization mechanisms.

As I wrote, Hiroki Azuma’s research popular culture in Japan to some degree reflects the shaping effect of the database society. Anime fans no longer have a preference for long Star Wars-like sagas distinguished by a tree-like narrative structure. Instead, anime is now largely devoid of originality or system-building narrative ambition. Users prefer a basic database of character designs, plot twists, and traits that are mixed and matched into different commercial products–which in turn are dissected and re-arranged in online fanfiction communities. Hollywood’s preference for “gritty reboots” and formulaic reusing of basic narratives and character archetypes shows that we’ve moving toward to this sort of cultural reality too.

Lanier’s use of the term “cybernetics” bears some explanation and contextualization. The dominant metaphor of Web 2.0 is complexity, self-organization, and self-synchronization. Lots of tomes have been written about the potential for social networks to enable the crowd. But the other side of Web 2.0 is cybernetics, especially as Facebook increasingly “eats” what we consider to be the broader Web:

Facebook offers businesses its own brand of access and indeed, a better branding tool. Your prospective customers are all here in one place, gathered together under the illusion of a social fabric; never mind whether they’re actually talking with one another or not, never mind whether the carrots or cattle they’re raising in Farmville are real.

Matt Devost has also written on CTOVision about how many of the search and categorization mechanisms discussed here could be improved, possibly dealing a deathblow to Twitter. Sounds vaguely totalitarian? Not entirely. One interpretation (suggested by Lanier’s work ) is that Facebook represents one side of an emerging techno-regime of micro-surveillance that increasingly exercise biopower through the transmission of life into data (which can then be sold, seized, or controlled). Critics of cybernetic technologies in the Cold War (particularly hippies, who once regarded computers as tools of The Man) made these arguments before the personal computer turned computing into a populist medium.

But as one of my favorite futurists Jamais Cascio noted, there’s also a very real (and sometimes overhyped) empowerment of the user inherent in the growth of a database society and the proliferation of devices that allows users to contribute and organize it. Cybernetics was once thought of in a highly positive manner that historically-minded enterprise technologists may remember. Norbert Weiner, Gregory Bateson, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and other pioneers of cybernetics saw great human potential in the ability of a systems understanding and the notion of feedback and self-regulation to improve business, society, and life as a whole. Cybernetics also moved far beyond its early focus on closed regulatory systems to open–and indeed living–systems, and much of contemporary environmental study and biology is influenced by large-scale systems views of the natural environment.

Enterprise technologists should take note of the growing ability of social networks to transform micro-activities of basic life into data. As Facebook and other networks–as well as the trends of ubiquitous computing–further deepen our dive into the database society, there is a revolutionary opportunity to create analytics for complex activities once thought to be entirely qualitative. as well as use network tools to enhance business productivity. CrucialPoint associates, clients, and friends are busy at work on many of these applications. As the database society looms, we have a choice between trying to fight what technology, social structures, and human nature is increasingly creating or we could think a bit more about how to harness it to empower the individual user and the enterprise owner. I vote for the latter.

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