IDEAS: Are there ethical or political lessons about metadata that Immersion teaches?
HIDALGO: What I believe is, if you’re going to make platforms that deal with personal data, you have to develop ways of doing this in such a way that you can be transparent with the user about the data you have, about how you’re handling it, and about how the user can withdraw the data from your system. And I think we don’t have that [in society], because what happens is, all of these things are buried in these user agreements that are longer than the Constitution....Hopefully, [with our deletion policy], we can lead by example, by showing that, when it’s possible to build these platforms, it may be something that people appreciate. It’s a very simple feature on the platform, but it makes a very strong moral point about the way we should deal with data.
IDEAS: How can seeing your own communications metadata change your life?
HIDALGO: If you see a movie where generals are planning a war, they have a little map and little toy soldiers, and that’s how they move around. They don’t have a view of how soldiers see things on the ground. They have this view that is more of a bird’s-eye view, a view from afar. The platforms that we have now, like Facebook and Twitter, provide us a stream—but that stream is not a map. It’s like looking out the car window, but it’s not like looking at the GPS.
From that perspective, I think [metadata visualization] allows us to think a little bit more about who you connect to and why. Are we having healthy relationships? Are there parts of our networks that maybe we’d like to grow more? Are there parts of the network that we’d like to connect with other parts of the network that we have not yet done so?
I do not believe that just connecting more is better. That’s overly simplistic, and I don’t think anybody truly believes that. Eventually, it’s not about having more connections but about having the right connections.
IDEAS: Would the world be a better place if everyone had access to all of their own communications metadata?
HIDALGO: I do think that it might be a world that we want to give a shot. I’d want to explore the opportunity.
To participate in the Media Lab’s “Immersion” project, visit immersion.media.mit.edu.
Abraham Riesman is a writer and documentary filmmaker in New York City. You can see his work at abrahamriesman.com.