Living in Data

November 21, 2022

Drawing of a river flowing through a book and turning into branching data paths.

I just finished reading Jer Thorp’s Living in Data. Overall, I thought it was an excellent book. It reminded me a bit of one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code. Both are a journey through technology through the lens of personal experience. In Ullman’s case, those experiences are about her different roles in the tech world and how they informed her ideas on life and technology. In Thorp’s case, he takes us through a variety of projects in which he’s participated that all have one thing in common: data.

From river trips and collecting data from remote campsites in Africa to glaciers in Canada and school gymnasiums in redlined St. Louis, each chapter reveals how different people and cultures are dealing with the world’s increasing reliance on data in all of its forms. The usual stuff is in there, like how we’re all constantly tracked by advertisers, but the most interesting stories involve cultures outside of the—or at least my—norm. Cultures like the Māori in New Zealand think differently about data and data ownership. Their concept of tāonga—translated as “treasure”—applies not only to physical possessions, but resources like ideas and cultural traditions, too. It’s a deep-rooted cultural concept that impacts how modern day Māori think about data sovereignty and, more importantly, how people outside of that culture can legally interact with Māori data. Applied to the western world, it could (and I’d argue should) impact how companies and individuals think about data.

The book is subtitled, “A citizen’s guide to a better information future.” Although it was thoroughly enjoyable, and got me excited about different data-driven futures, it’s definitely less of a “guide” than a memoir of Thorp’s work. There wasn’t a lot of practical guidance for living a day-to-day life in a data-driven world, but perhaps that’s because everything’s so messy right now and no one knows the right way to approach data across such disparate cultures. What works for the Māori might now work for someone from Idaho. While we can take loose lessons from how different people think about data around the world, it’s harder to distill those lessons into actionable guidance that people can apply today. Which browsers or services should I use? How do I get a company to delete data about me? How can I protect my data in the future? Those are hard questions without a single, one-size-fits-all answer.

Still, they are important questions to consider and Thorp did a great job getting me excited to think about them more deeply.