Some thoughts on data and a world made from LEGO

In Douglas Coupland’s book Microserfs there is a page with large print. The page looks at you and proclaims: Hello, I am your personal computer. When I read this in 1995, I didn’t feel that the generic welcome message my computer displayed or any other communication I received from it was personal. I didn’t use technology in a way that made me question whether it had a consciousness, either its own or one derived from what I was inputting. But today, the technology I use is largely designed to be personal both in the way it is constructed and the way in which it presents data to me. Unlike the personal computer in the story, which turns into a receptacle for the protagonists hopes and dreams in the form of diary entries, our digital devices, like those of billions of people across the world, are very personal to us indeed. Not just in the way we use them, but the way in which they facilitate a staggering amount of small packages of data about us and our activities to be generated.
Research shows the increase in the amount of data we generate as a species and the conclusion we come to is that is it a lot. The company that made it its mission “to organise the world’s information and to make it universally accessible and useful” is Google. To my mind, Google are the equivalent of a very ingenious individual sorting through an expanding box of all possible LEGO bricks and creating order in the multi-coloured chaos which allows us to build everything imaginable, with the added benefit that the box will never empty, as we are all just using copies of the data bricks and thus never run out.
Billions of people benefit from this endeavour to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible. Although a lot could be said here about the commercialisation of this project, what I am interested in is the final word in the mission statement: useful. Usefulness is both obvious and complex. You cold argue that by making the information accessible, it becomes useful. The more data is available to people, the more they can use it for a plethora of purposes. More people having access to more data must cause some useful application of the data and thus, usefulness exists.
In another way, more people using more data also generates more data in turn. We know of many ways in which our interactions with the world are recorded and this data in turn can be used by people and they can put it to use. Some of that data is universally accessible, some of it is not. Some of the data we are explicitly aware of, some of it we may not be able to imagine yet.
When I played with LEGO as a child, the best afternoons were spent making structures using the small coloured bricks, and then adding all sorts of other toys into the game. LEGO was the glue that kept it all together, but the addition of tiny duvets made from tissues and fabric cut offs with help from my mom made my characters brick-built beds infinitely more fun to play with.
I suppose I feel the same way about digital data. You can use it for all sorts of things, and there are no limits to what you can make with it. But in the end, its the things that exist outside of the digital dataverse that give it relevance and meaning – and make it fun to play with.