I spend a lot of time with my mind in data. I teach a class on Business Information Systems, and I emphasis a good portion of the class on data collection, usage, and analysis. For fun, I have databases that I created for Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL), National Football League (NFL), and National Basketball Association (NBA). Currently, I am gathering statistics for the Japanese Baseball League going back to 1950. I will eventually integrate that database into the MLB database, and then eventually add Minor League Baseball stats (going back to 1990 only – the stats are rather sparse after that), Mexican Baseball League, and Venezuelan League Winter baseball stats as well. Yeah – I’m a nerd in that way. I love playing with databases.
A few years ago – I tried to create a database for my book collection. And failed a little at it. I really did not have an appreciation of how to connect some of the information that was necessary for it to work the way I wanted it to. But its been in the back of my mind – and I will probably start this project again in September. I have a little better idea of how I want to connect the books that I read – plus I think I have the Memo field figured out enough to add full-length reviews (my huge stumbling block from before) within Access. However, I have had a few colleagues at the college tell me that I might want to consider moving over to MSSQL Server – a far more robust database program from Microsoft. Problem is – I don’t have that kind of cash. The Open Source models are not something I really care to work with either. But now, I am digressing into the technical side of things – which fascinates me, but is likely putting you to sleep. 🙂
The point here is that I see patterns. I see patterns in nearly everything around me. And I see connections as well. When I shop for groceries, I don’t just see a product that I can use as an ingredient in a meal that I can prepare later – that is one connection though. I see a product that is made up of several things, each of which must be mixed together – in some cases – and then packaged by materials that also need to be delivered to a company’s facility. Most of those products are made by smaller companies or independent farmers. So, when I drive through the country-side on trips to various places – I see places where some of this product and ingredients came from. Then, I wonder about how the money flows down from my hand, to the distributing company, and then eventually down to the independent farmer. Everyone along the way – distribution, packaging, assembly, transportation – they all will take their cut of the money that I paid for the product. And that makes me think about how small of a return from that product that the independent farmer may get.
I see Farmers Markets all over the DFW area. People selling fresh produce at prices that are somewhat lower than that of larger distribution chains, such as Wl Mart or Kroger Grocery stores. In theory, I see how the profit margin on this would be greater for the Independent Farmer, a far better way to sell directly to the public. But then I begin to wonder – how many of these people selling at the Farmers Markets are really the farmers’ themselves? Yes, my cynical mind begins to kick in.
In this day and age, it is far easier to defraud the public over who you are and what you represent than anytime before it. Let’s face some reality. There are con artists everywhere, scattered throughout time. People pretending to be something they are not, preying on the good intentions of others. In this modern, electronic age – its far easier to be someone you are not – and get people to do things that you want them to do, just based on their good intentions towards others.
An example I use in my classroom is get a person at your table talking about a subject that they are very into. As they continue talking, start handing them things on the table. Your form, your knife, your spoon, the salt and pepper shakers, the sweeteners…see if you can quietly move everything from one side of the table to the other just by quietly handing items to them. They are distracted enough to do what you are wanting, and you never said a word. This is an example of social engineering. Getting people to do what you want without their knowledge that they are doing so.
A recent article running around the internet notes that Facebook manipulated people’s News Feeds to see if the users’ moods could be altered depending on what they saw. The results were then published as an academic paper.
In an academic paper published in conjunction with two university researchers, the company reported that, for one week in January 2012, it had altered the number of positive and negative posts in the news feeds of 689,003 randomly selected users to see what effect the changes had on the tone of the posts the recipients then wrote.
I hold two Masters degrees. In both degrees, I had to write an academic paper utilize information and data from a research study. In both instances, I was continually reminded that the subjects that I researched the information from, as well as any individual that came in contact with my subjects during the research, had to be aware of the study taking place. What was done here, by Facebook, and particularly by Adam D.I. Kramer, the individual who led the study, is unethical. Whatever degree program that was fed the information that resulted from this study – should revoke the associated degrees and collegiate credits that resulted from this study. I am well aware that Facebook’s “Terms of Usage” statement that every Facebook user agrees to when creating their account will be utilized as a defense in this situation. But that still does not absolve the unethical usage of the users’ feeds.
All of this has caused me to sit back and think – and wonder. When the internet started into the commercial realm in the mid 1990s, it was utilized for what the design was made for – a communications tools. A little under a half-decade later, companies began to realize the commercial tool that it could become. I worked for a dot-com company in 2000 and 2001. I watched the initial boom period, when I was hired. The company was doing great – hopes were wildly exuberant. Less than a year later, all but five people were laid off (we had an employee base of 175 people), because exuberance does not pay the bills. Many companies folded in under the digital seas during that time. At the bottom of the internet ocean, far beneath the waves of profitability, lie the wrecks of the companies that have gone before. Some acted ethical, some did not. But very, very few of them saw things such as data collection as a means to make their fortunes.
Everyone knows about data collection under the National Security Administration (NSA) of the United States government, thanks to the efforts of Wiki-Leaks, and Mr. Snowden. Honestly, its really nothing new. Grocery chains have been doing data-mining and data-collection for many years prior to the commercial explosion of the internet. Electronic payment via the credit card swipe machine at the register makes it even easier for the grocery chains to tie specific products to specific customers – allowing for better distribution of targeted marketing for various products. yes, targeted marketing is the junk mail you receive in your mailbox…and just discard into the trash can. Companies pay large amounts of money for these ad campaigns.
…and there’s a pattern here. Companies are not trying to rip you off of your dollar. They are merely trying to maximize their profit margins – a very necessary fact in a Capitalist system. After all, products are only worth what a consumer will pay for them – regardless of how much it cost to make the product. If it cost $35 to make a product, but the consumer is not willing to purchase the product for more than $15 – it only makes sense that the product is not worth manufacturing, right? Yet, in the early days of the internet, Microsoft gave their browser away for free, and marked up the prices on their other software offerings – such as Microsoft Office – to make up for the loss. This business practice nearly destroyed Netscape Navigator at the time. They were selling their browser for $15. There was no way they could compete with that model from Microsoft. Don’t sit there and think that this does not happen all the time, it does.
So, the bigger question – when you discover these patterns, what can you do about it? How can you let these companies know what’s right and wrong?? The tried and true method – don’t buy their products. Buy independent and local. Put the money back into the hands of the people around you…but how can you tell if those folks at the Farmers Markets are really the farmers themselves – and not some middle-man who purchased the produce at much lower prices, and is re-selling to you at a higher price? And what about online stuff? How can we keep folks online as honest as we can? How do we keep people from scamming people??
That’s a good question…and one that I am afraid I have no answer for. All I can really point out, is that you need to be vigilant, as a consumer, as a person. Within my own understanding of Paganism, and Druidry, I am starting to see connections and patterns in everything around me. Someone remarked to me very recently, that being in Druidry is about “becoming awake and aware” of the world around you. And that does hold true for me – walking this Path has certainly made me much more aware of things I have taken for granted or flat-out ignored in the past. Whatever Path you walk – I hope that your Spirituality helps you to become awake and aware…my walk in Druidry continues to open my eyes and allow me to see the world around me in a new light. And while I have a larger connection to my immediate eco-system, its only recently that I have become aware that this eco-system is more than the plants, animals, minerals, structures, and humans around me. There’s also the invisible world of binary ones and zeroes to consider.