Mashup activity

Rebang spotted a comic-strip style advert, featuring an avatar, for virtual boots, and remarks “I suspect there is going to be a lot of mashup activity rippling through our lives.” Hes right, but rippling is not the word I would have chosen.

The word mashup is an interesting one. I usually take it to mean combining two data streams, often to repurpose them – ie linking crime reports to maps to show the safest areas to live, or suchlike. It usually goes with the expression “Web 2.0”, and gets mentioned on OReilly Radar, and then is rarely heard of again. (See this posting by ReBang.)

But the fact is that so many of our activities are now digitised. Our histories are digitised (mostly by the authorities). Our identities are digitised. (If I go to my bank to talk to a human, they still expect me to identify myself by producing a piece of plastic and tapping in my PIN.) Our music and images are digitised. Our amusements and diversions are increasingly digitised. (Games etc.)

The issue is that digital information is notoriously easy to re-purpose. Firstly, it can be exactly duplicated, possibly where it was not intended. This can have an exhilarating, novel, artistic impact (see this post), or can mean that your bank account just went to Nigeria. In the art world, for instance, there used to be screen prints etc which the artist had produced and signed personally; there are now laser prints (ie photocopies) and gicle prints (copies printed out on a ink-jet, from the artists original binary code.) The concept of the unique object is rapidly changing.

Secondly, digital information streams can be combined, and the missing bits provided by clever algorithms. (Its what your brain does, after all.)

It would be possible to recreate my life in some detail if you had access to all those records, particularly if I had a Flickr account, geotagged my photos, etc etc. Perhaps in future written biographies may be replaced by a kind of performing avatar based on a mashup of all the archived surveillance databases, etc etc., magically rescued from rotting silicon (only 64bit – imagine!) and stuffed (as we experts say) into one big database. Youd even be able to do what-ifs with the lives of the famous. (What if Hitler had got into art school?) Or Bayesian predictions of their behaviour (imagine you invited six famous people to a dinner party – well, one day you might just simulate it rather than bother to imagine it.)

And the technology for presenting the new information is so much better – HD TV, VR headsets, etc.

Thridly, digital information is easier to alter. What may well happen if mashups do continue to expand – and Im sure ReBang is right to think they will – is that we will start to lose confidence in data itself, just as digital photographs are seen as less reliable evidence than the old fashioned film ones. How long before we have a case in which some police force re-purposes digital data to prove a case, in the national interest of course? (The honest coppers dilemma, expressed by Condoleazza Rice in this interview about extraterritorial rendition.)

This is not just a bleat about governments and police being overbearing. The problem will increasingly be proving it, or rather that the proof wont matter. If someone steals my identity and misuses my credit card, then under some circumstances Im liable to pay the bill, even if everyone agrees it wasnt me.

The concept of the unique individual also seems to be draining away. As a reactionary, middle-aged Englishman – there, Ive said it – I find that disturbing and sad. However I take heart from things like RFID spoofing, and the degree of confusion the authorities (and the marketers, presumably) still seem to show when it comes to using all that data for its original purpose.

Historical parallel. Theres a Holbein exhibition on in London at the moment. It includes a sketch Holbein drew for a portrait of Sir Thomas More and family. After More had approved, it, Holbein painted the picture, and sent the sketch to Erasmus who was living in Switzerland. (All three men were friends). Erasmus had not seen More for years, and this image was the only one available to him of his friend. These days (apart from seeing More on the TV news) Erasmus could have any number of instant images via mobile phones, chatted to him over video phones, etc.

But with mashups, though he would have seen his friends face more often, could Erasmus be certain he was speaking to the real More? Or might Henry VIII have his stubborn Chancellor repurposed? (Imperceptibly, because digitally.) Repurposed to such an extent that More himself began to wonder what he had really said and done?

Remember, More was convicted largely because the Crown produced forged evidence at his trial. Wikipedia says:

“Thomas Cromwell, at the time the most powerful of the kings advisors, brought forth the Solicitor General, Richard Rich, to testify that More had, in his presence, denied that the king was the legitimate head of the church. This testimony was almost certainly perjured (witnesses Richard Southwell and Mr Palmer both denied having heard the details of the reported conversation), but on the strength of it the jury voted for Mores conviction.”

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