How much data do we really need?

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We live in the Information Age. Knowledge is power, after all. But how much data do we really need?


The other day, my son and I drove over several cables strung across the road, next to a truck blazoned with the words, “Data Collection.” These cables were strategically placed to record either the number or the speed of the cars that passed. My son droned in an ominous voice, “They know!”

Whoever “they” are.

Think about it. How many aspects of our daily lives are subject to “data collection?” Obviously computers thrive on it. I don’t seriously think that there’s a little guy inside my laptop spying on my every keystroke, but sometimes it feels like it. If I innocuously search online for a hotel for a hypothetical trip to Anchorage, then ads for that hotel chain pop up on my Facebook feed for the next three weeks. The hotel chain probably knows how many times I clicked on the web pages, how long I lingered on each page, and how many nights I spent in hotels over the past five years and whether or not I stole any towels. All in the name of data collection.

Then there are the websites that are created to encourage people to amass their own data, like Goodreads. I may seem like the perfect candidate for Goodreads. I like to read, I often read multiple books at once, and I have a number of book lists for that rainy day that never seems to come. But I’m a failure at Goodreads. The thought of posting what I’m reading for the faceless Internet community, or even my friends, to follow is a bizarre concept to me. Setting a reading goal and then keeping track of my progress feels too much like elementary school reading logs, which suck the joy out of reading. You’re not supposed to keep track of your reading! You’re supposed to hide under your covers with a flashlight after your mother calls, “Lights out now, I mean it!” for the fifth time. Reading is supposed to transport you to a different world, or open up a new fount of knowledge, not become a vehicle for checking items off a to-do list. There, I said it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the to-do list. I am totally motivated by little checkmarks. Case in point: this summer my family is competing in our own Marathon Club. Similar to the running program in the elementary schools, we’ve got a chart where we can mark down each mile we walk, run, bike, or hike, and when we reach 26 miles, we’ve done a marathon. I just passed the marathon mark. My son has lapped me five times. Nothing like a bit of friendly competition to keep those muscles moving!

With all this walking, I discovered that my phone has been tallying every step I take, every day since the day I got it. It may be a useful health app for knowing when I’ve actually hit the mile mark, but I’m still freaked out by the fact that my phone has been keeping data on me all this time without my knowledge or consent.

The grocery store knows that I like smooth rather than crunchy peanut butter. The phone company collects data on my texting habits. The electric company knows when my lights are on. The fuel supplier knows when to fill up my oil tank based on the temperatures of the past weeks. My car keeps track of how many miles I’ve driven and calculates the remaining oil life for me. All useful, and creepy at the same time!

The above data collection is automatic, unseen for the most part, and nothing that I can reasonably opt out of without jumping off the grid and living in the forest like a wild woman. Then there are the overt attempts to collect data through surveys, polls and other dinnertime phone calls. The callers introduce themselves and launch into their “brief survey,” before I can slip in a quick, “I’m sorry, goodbye,” and hang up. If they tried calling at some other time than dinnertime, they might have better luck with me. But if I’m in the middle of mashing potatoes and thickening gravy simultaneously, I really don’t have time for a “brief” survey. They should do a survey to find out the best time to call for a survey. But they never asked me.

Which is the problem, of course. If I opt out of all these inconvenient surveys, just because I want to eat my mashed potatoes while they’re still hot, then I can’t complain when things don’t go my way, right? Nuts!

The question remains: how much data collection do we really need? Maybe someone should run a survey on that, and take down some data …

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and debut author who writes cozy mysteries under the name Greta McKennan. Her first novel, “Uniformly Dead,” is now available online and coming soon to Hearthside Books. She likes to look at the bright side of life.


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