Data is Human

“It’s up to smart humans to stop being stupid about AI.” That was the title of what we’d argue was the most impactful talk at Collision 2019 in Toronto. A single slide of three words eloquently summarises the challenge and opportunity of our era: Data is Human.

The presenter, Christian Beedgen, went on to connect this concept with a quote from Immanuel Kant:

“Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end.”

Combined, the implication is as follows:

When we consider that data is simply data, it is easy, even generally accepted, to treat data as a means to an end.

When we consider that data is human, we are confronted with the ethical dilemma of treating humans as a means to an end.

The challenge of our era is to consider that data is human despite the opportunity of, for instance, the lucrative advertising-revenue models of immensely successful Web 2.0-generation businesses which rely on data as a means to an end.

Imagine if industry did indeed consider data to be human and treated it as such. Would we have had the occasion to write the following blog posts over the course of the past six years?

— We need to move Beyond people-as-a-product [2018].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

— We should take care to treat The IoT as your Brand Ambassador [2016].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

Society can HOPE for a better Link [2016].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

— There’s a strong case for The Bank of Personal Data [2015].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

— There’s a legitimate fear of Big Brother and the Identity of Things [2013].   Why?   Because data is human, and we should treat people as an end and not a means.

Of course, all too often, industry continues to treat data in the manner that is most convenient, not necessarily that which is most appropriate. This is even more concerning in light of the Internet of Things, where humans generate orders of magnitude more data, often unknowingly.

In fact, our cheeky April Fool’s post introduced the concept of the “Digital Conjoined Twin”, arguably the ultimate manifestation of data being human. Will industry practices drive people to a point where they will go so far as to host their own data on their person? Almost certainly not, assuming that companies embrace, in earnest, the concept that data is human.

However, if companies continue to treat user data as a means to an end, the consequence may well be their users finding a means, however extreme, to end the relationship. It’s up to smart humans to avoid that outcome.