Piranhas of the Personal - Data Harvesting from the Domesday Book to Face Book

The ancient architecture of Europe is considered a romantic part of the European heritage.  A “Must See” on the tourist trail.  We swoon over the beauty of castles, towers and cathedrals and (often) view them through the lens of fairy tales, imagining the exploits of princesses and knights, fiery dragons and damsels in distress waiting to be saved.  Tales that go back to some  of the earliest examples of European literature and culture.  Legendary tropes mashed-up with Courtly Love: chaste and dutiful.  

But, if you look more closely, and from the right angle, the true nature of the architecture screams out.  The brutality of invasion and subjugation.  These buildings were placed to shock and awe. Clues also exist in the names of towns and villages left behind, both here and as Europe Spread across the New World. The castles on the ground became castles in the air.  The subjugation and manipulation now invisible.

We have just returned from a family trip to Europe that culminated in a few days spent in the village of my childhood.

Scatagraua,now known as Chedgrave, was as Anglo-Saxon as the squat square church tower that dominates the hill over-looking the village.  A church tower which dates back to 980 A.D. 86 years before 1066.  Before the Invasion.  Sometime in the next couple of hundred years after that calamity the name of the village changed, reflecting the new reality.  Out went the Anglo-Saxon and in came ownership, if the History of British Places Names is to be believed. The old Anglo-Saxon talk of Angled Groves are transmuted in to a pit owned by a family or man named Caetta or Chad. In the way so much Anglo-Saxon nomenclature disappeared, replaced by allusions of the land’s new ownership.

The linguistic subjugation was accompanied by the actual, physical domination of the new Norman rulers. Norwich, the closest city to Chedgrave, boasts a Norman castle and a cathedral.  Both buildings still dominate the city.  Each is based on a flint core, hard nodules of silica found in the local sedimentary rock. Coarse on the outside the inside resembles glass or obsidian.  The local foundation was then covered in a fine shell of Norman limestone.  Those soft white blocks were mined in the town of Caen then sailed from Normandy around the British coast and down the river Yare to Norwich.  Both buildings, the castle and the cathedral, were designed to awe and intimidate. A show of strength and power to leave no doubt in the indigenous population about who was in charge.  Who ruled. 

Some aspects of humanity never change.

Scatagraua/Chedgrave was documented in the great census of British chattels that William I a.k.a.  William the Conqueror a.k.a. William the Bastard called for shortly before his death.  This was the first recorded data harvesting exercise in English history, and it was completed in little over a year in 1085/86.  It surveyed everything:  property, buildings, villages, people.  Anything that can owned or taxed or both.

All 14,000 so entries seem to have been completed by one small team of scribes. They embarked on two separate expeditions riding through the countryside recording everything they found.  The result, called the Domesday Book, pronounced Doomsday, was literally that, the book of reckoning at the end of the (Anglo-Saxon) world.  The king, Harold Godwinson, dead.  The Anglo-Saxon Baronial class of England replaced by the Norman Conquerors en masse.  The decisions regarding ownership and taxable property that the Domesday Book captured, so said Richard FitzNeal in the reign of Henry II, were as unalterable as the last judgement.

Today we each probably surrender as much data in minute as the Domesday Book captured in a year and in most cases we are unaware.  The billions of dollars in server costs of Facebook or Snap Chat or Instagram paid for by a continual harvest of our online lives, used (and it would seem abused) to help manipulate us into buying a particular product or service or vote for a particular candidate.  The exercise much more effective because the selling is based on our internal prejudices, our world picture our own version of the truth.  It has been dubbed Surveillance Capitalism, Facebook and Google the biggest proponent.  There’s a reason Android phones are cheaper than Apple, in many ways they are the loss leaders to the real product, the life of the person who owns the device.

Now, in the spotlight we have Mark Zuckerberg’s floundering and a silence emanating from Google, Jeff Bezos and even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (owner of LinkedIn) that is deafening. Tim Cook of Apple has been the one consistent and vociferous Big Tech crusader for personal privacy in the face of the onslaught our online lives face.  There is speculation that Siri, the first digital assistant, is not as good as Alexa or Google for that very reason.  The amount of personal data that Siri needs to micro-triangulate and segment our needs is simply not as forthcoming.  Machine learning needs data, huge, gluttonous amounts.  The more the better.  These machines are vociferous feeders: piranhas of the personal.  Every time you ask Alexa, you’re feeding the beast.  I see Siri’s sometime ineptitude as a badge of honor, not a failing.     

Is there anything to be done?  Yes.  Regulation and privacy protection. Extending that which already exists in Europe.  Forcing companies like Facebook et alto be compliant with the most strident regulations available, and ensure that compliance is equally applied across all territories. 

Finally, we must be personally as aware and protective of the product we are selling online (us), as we are with the products we buy on the high-street.  And if the free offer looks too good to be true, it is.