Wired UK, By David Rowan, 18 January 11
Every year, John Brockman of the Edge Foundation poses a question to the Edge community of scientists, public intellectuals, writers and thinkers who make up what he calls "the third culture". The question is designed to provoke fascinating yet inspiring answers, and is typically open-ended -- such as "What's your law?" (the 2004 question), "What are you optimistic about?" (2007), and "How is the internet changing the way you think?" (last year's). Often these questions are turned into paperback books.
This year, Brockman asked: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" He took as his starting point James Flynn's notion of "shorthand abstractions" -- "concepts drawn from science that have become part of the language and make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates ('market', 'placebo', 'random sample', 'naturalistic fallacy', are a few of his examples)". If we have a shorthand linguistic means of expressing the notion, Flynn suggested, we can use it as an element in thinking and debate. "This is the most challenging question we've put forth to date," Brockman said. Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioural economics, said: "It is my favourite question ever. You will get great responses and actually move the culture forward."
On Saturday Brockman published this year's submissions, more than 150 answers from the likes of Craig Venter, Brian Eno and Steven Pinker (mostly men, it has to be said, with contributors such as Alison Gopnik and Lisa Randall making up a small female minority). A number of Wired contributors have sent in answers this year, writers such as Jonah Lehrer, David Eagleman and Matt Ridley. Some journalists and editors were also invited to add their thoughts, which is how I submitted a proposal for "personal data mining" as part of the symposium. ...
Personal data mining
From the dawn of civilisation until 2003, Eric Schmidt is fond of saying, humankind generated five exabytes of data. Now we produce five exabytes every two days -- and the pace is accelerating. In our post-privacy world of pervasive social-media sharing, GPS tracking, cellphone-tower triangulation, wireless sensor monitoring, browser-cookie targeting, face-detecting, consumer-intention profiling, and endless other means by which our personal presence is logged in databases far beyond our reach, citizens are largely failing to benefit from the power of all this data to help them make smarter decisions.
It's time to reclaim the concept of data mining from the marketing industry's microtargeting of consumers, the credit-card companies' anti-fraud profiling, the intrusive surveillance of state-sponsored Total Information Awareness. We need to think more about mining our own output to extract patterns that turn our raw personal datastream into predictive, actionable information. All of us would benefit if the idea of personal data mining were to enter popular discourse.