A lifetime of data

How much of your life has been recorded? It's probably far less than you think.

Part of the research I’m doing about measuring audiences is about the experience of being surveilled. I’m really interested in how companies got permission (or didn’t) from us to capture our lives as data, and what this trade feels like.

Writing this from 2020, we expect that pretty much everything we do is creating a data trail, but this shift in our expectations has happened very recently indeed. But even so, it already feels impossible to opt out - surveillance is the quid pro quo of modern networked technology.

Reading the history of audience measurement in the 20th century, I keep being surprised by how little data was generated, and how hard companies had to work to get these meagre morsels from us. The story I’m uncovering in the research is one of frustration from companies that we, the audience, continued to be ‘ghosts’ for far longer than they wanted us to. The battle to measure us, to turn all our needs, wants, choices and behaviours into data, was one that capitalism pretty much lost until the 2000s. Then the smartphone came along, and the dam broke.

I’ve started thinking about my own life, and how much I can remember, or reconstruct, the ways in which I have been measured and recorded. I feel surprised, strangely, that much of my life generated no permanent data. I’ve quickly assimilated a world in which my personal data is the key that starts pretty much any product or service. So it feels odd to remember that, for most of my life, I’ve been a ghost.

If you had an interesting history of personal data - if you were a Nielsen Family, or if your family filled out market research reports - I’d love to hear your story, so please let me know if you’re willing to have a short interview/chat for my research. Here’s what I can piece together about my own data life:

1972-1976
I was born, premature, on Feb 6th 1972. So there’s a birth certificate - the first record created that acknowledges I exist. A friend once described what it felt like registering his first child’s birth, mixing their lives into the state infrastructure in a way that is irreversible - ‘as intractable as milk in tea’. I love that phrase.

These are the records that are most likely to survive us. You can ask your GP for your medical records, and I wonder how far back they go, and what details they contain. I’m going to do this for my research, once it feels ok to bother them again with such a trivial task.

I am an identical twin, and many years later my mum mentioned she was asked (by whom? The hospital?) if she would be willing to join a longitudinal study about twins. She refused. If she had accepted, my brother and I would have been regularly recorded, analysed and published in research papers. But instead, we remained invisible. Chalk one up for the ghost.

1976-1990
I had an analogue childhood, although we were early adopters of home computers, and had a cup modem on our computer in 1988, dialling in to early bulletin boards and MUDs. No records of these early digital activities exist. The computers are long-gone, and the networks were a lot more forgetful then.

There are family photos, but these were recorded on long-lost negatives. Some prints are still around, but I’ve not published them anywhere. I haven’t scanned them for social media, unlike my daughters, who have already shared more photos with digital networks in their few teen years than I had taken, in total, in my childhood.

We bought things, but nobody knew it was us buying them. My parents had one credit card when I was a kid, but ran up bills on a foreign holiday and had to cut it in half when they got home. We bought newspapers (the Mirror for my parents, The Guardian for me when I was a teen, with pretensions to join the middle-class), but they were measured by returns at the shop, not in our living room.

We were measured in bulk, huge swathes of numbers recorded as vans were sent out with palettes of newsprint, returning with the unsold stock for the previous day. The delta between the two was us - the readers - counted by an absence as much as a presence. Our TV was always on, but we were never asked to contribute diaries or data for ratings. So all that attention - those hours spent watching Hill Street Blues, Cheers, The Young Ones - went unnoticed and uncounted.

We went to the shops to buy milk, crisps, meat, shoes, school uniforms, birthday and Christmas presents. The cash transactions were recorded at the tills, but again, it wasn’t us that was being recorded. Retail empires reached no further than the door of the shop - once we passed that threshold, we became ghosts again.

There were a couple of exceptions. My parents had Kays catalogues, and later the Next Directory, sent through the post. So there would have been records of goods bought on HP or the ‘never-never’, records of payments made and missed, letters sent with red labels on them. I assume none of this data still exists.

There was also the ‘Man from the Pru’, who used to come and drink tea on our sofa whilst my parents settled their life insurance. The Prudential started sending agents to our homes in 1848, and at the peak in the 1960s had over 10,000 agents visiting 6 million homes in the UK, each one with the trademark leather briefcase. Ours was very tall, and in my memories he looks like Richard Osman.

1990-1996

I left home in 1988 to go to Glasgow School of Art. There will be some records there, but the recent, heart-breaking, fires at the Mackintosh building will have destroyed some of them, including the hard-bound copy of my final dissertation, which is no great loss. My local council in Hertfordshire will have records of paying my student grant, and the newly-created Student Loan Company will track me borrowing the maximum amount every year, starting with £400 in 1990.

After Art School I spent a year on the dole, so there will be records of my visits to the unemployment office, and requests for housing benefit. The place I used to go to in Maryhill to sign on was one of the biggest in the country at the time. So my data will be a tiny speck in a universe of unproductive lives - people unable to work, unwilling to work, or, like me, trying to stretch the boundaries of what ‘work’ meant in the first place. Around the same time I did a couple of paid drug tests as a human guinea pig at Heriot Watt University’s medical research labs. I’m hoping the notes from these turn up in my medical records, and that there are no surprises.

1996-2003
The first few years of adulthood would have created more permanent traces - bank accounts, national insurance numbers, etc - but this gathers pace when I start work full time, first at two art centres in Yorkshire, then at the BBC. The moment I first used my BBC pass to enter the old Television Centre was a genuinely emotional moment. I had email for the first time, and there are still a couple of records of my early work email addresses in usenet and mailing list archives that are still online.

Up until now, pretty much every tiny trace of data about my life has been recorded for me, and mostly by the state. The early years of the web mark the time that I start to create a data trail by choice.

I’m there, in the archives of net.art mailing lists like nettime and Rhizome, announcing experimental digital art projects and taking my first stabs at writing about culture. Rhizome contacted me a few years ago asking permission to reproduce something I wrote in 1999 for their Net Art Anthology. I had no recollection of writing it at all, but there it was - clearly by me, in their archive.

And most of all, I started blogging. I had profiles on all the new social media networks at the time - ICQ, Myspace, Friendster, Bebo, etc - but these have all bit-rotted away, much faster than the paper records of the state. The first record at Test.org.uk is from February 2003, but it’s already referencing something I’d written elsewhere on the web.

The early 2000s were a period of rapidly filling boxes on the web with stuff - words and images of what we were thinking, feeling and doing. This is what we now eulogise as ‘the web we lost’, the optimistic era in which making ourselves visible to the network felt like a revolutionary, liberating act. The connections between us were made deliberately, with intent, as we subscribed to RSS feeds, added each other to blogrolls and created a network of trackbacks to each other’s writing.

2003-now
Meanwhile, the long-thwarted desire for capitalism to measure our every activity was about to have its moment. They’d got it wrong all along - instead of walking into our living rooms with a suit and briefcase, like the man from the Pru, they needed to create fake living rooms - places on the web where we would happily talk about our lives with anyone willing to listen.

Between 2003-2007 the tools to measure our digital lives grew quickly, first as analytics, then as algorithms, and then, with the launch of the iPhone, as hardware. After a century of being ghosts, we finally snapped into focus, and the irony was, we did it willingly.

It’s only thirteen years since the launch of the iPhone, and only a few days until Facebook, launched Feb 4th 2004, turns sixteen. I’ve been extremely online, and extremely visible to networks, for about the same amount of time I’ve been a father.

And just like parenthood, I’m finding it hard to remember what life was like before.