Paul Revere, Social Graph, Speculative Writing

The readings about networks and graphs. Facebook has what it calls a social graph, which is the data it maps about all our connections. I can’t do the mathematics behind it, but it is potentially very powerful, as this post from Ditte shows. In a similar vein when the Snowden story broke recently there were arguments that if the government harvested all this information about you, and you weren’t doing anything wrong, then what was the issue. (We’ll put to one side questions about sovereignty, privacy, the assumption of privacy and so on.) Sociologist Kieran Healy, using a social graph, wrote an extraordinary (speculative – note it is framed as if written from London in 1772, calls its data set Bigge Data – as in ‘olde worlde’ – and mentions an upcoming EDWARDx – TedX – talk) blog post that used this same mathematics and theory to ‘prove’ that Paul Revere was a terrorist. For those that don’t know, Paul Revere was the person who rode through Boston (there is literally a line painted on the road, in Boston today, so you can retrace his famous ride) yelling that the “British are coming!” and alerting the American patriots to the oncoming British soldiers in the American Revolution. He essentially set up an intelligence unit. He is the American hero (patriot, solider, prosperous silversmith, Bostonian, subject of a famous poem), and as Healy shows, by using the social graph (nodes and links) you can demonstrate that Revere was a hub, and therefore a terrorist. As Healy writes:

What a nice picture! The analytical engine has arranged everyone neatly, picking out clusters of individuals and also showing both peripheral individuals and—more intriguingly—people who seem to bridge various groups in ways that might perhaps be relevant to national security. Look at that person right in the middle there. Zoom in if you wish. He seems to bridge several groups in an unusual (though perhaps not unique) way. His name is Paul Revere.

Once again, I remind you that I know nothing of Mr Revere, or his conversations, or his habits or beliefs, his writings (if he has any) or his personal life. All I know is this bit of metadata, based on membership in some organizations.

The point he is making is that just based on social links a lot of information is known, but then add one or two assumptions (as he points out, he knows nothing about these people) and it is easy for this information to shift from being information, to knowledge, to an exercise of unreasonable power.