Data Ethics Philosophy and ethics of big data  
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Maximum Example
of Data Ethics: Tinder Live

    Tinder: Live is a comedy show starring Lane Moore. She projects her phone onto a big screen, begins swiping, and when algorithms churn information into a match, she messages the guy something absurd and suggestive. While subsequent exchanges amp up the provocation, Moore sips beer and spins a ridiculing narrative. Everyone has a good time in an uncomfortable sort of way and, in the end, because Tinder geofences users, and because the show runs in neighborhood bars, when Moore asks whether anyone in the room actually knows one of the night’s victims, a hand or two usually goes up.  

Privacy and convenience

The fundamental trade: Tinder means your name, face, and numbers are exposed to the fingertips of strangers, the purposes of comedians, and the machinations of algorithms. But, there’s no denying that it’s easier to find romance when you can poke through a digitally curated list of others, get a match, send a message, and meet in under five minutes.


Pure data ethics: privacy exchanged for convenience.


Exposure and the neutered identity

Audiences subjected to Tinder: Live emerge shell-shocked by the revealed vulnerability. When the lights come up, silence descends because everyone’s frantically removing anything potentially ridiculous from their Tinder profiles. Which is prudent, but also a retreat: risk-free profiles become conventional, impersonal, dull. There’s a palpable loss of edginess and unique individuality following the collapse of privacy at Tinder: Live.


The identity split is inescapable. On one side, for Tinder to work – for people to be drawn to each other – the online participants have to be someone, they need to take a risk, reveal something, give someone else a reason to say Yes. On the other side, the possibility that the data will be exposed to others with ulterior intentions – that it will turn up in front of a jeering audience, or maybe get sold to a corporate bidder – all that pulls in the other direction: toward an identity which is inconspicuous, unremarkable, anonymous.


Conclusion: On the exposure side of the split identity, Tinder: Live – and the big data reality it represents – can be neutering.


Algorithms and the identity prison (feedback loop)

Tinder promises to curate: as you reveal the shape of your desire by swiping left and right, algorithmic filters refine their output. So, a woman initially served random nearby males, progresses to guys in their twenties who like music, and ends up receiving image after image of 27 year-olds who play in jazz ensembles.


This curation becomes an identity prison. Because we’re constantly sent possibilities selected to resemble what we’ve already liked, we’re incessantly confirmed as who we already are. At least in terms of romantic interest, there’s no escape: the feedback loop turns, and Tinder keeps returning us to our old flame, but with a different name.


The romantic reality mirrors the individual condition: just like you can't get to a different relationship when the same one keeps repeating, so too you can't become a different person when everything delivered into your experience repeats what you already are.


Finally, Lane Moore is a Tinder disaster not only because she mocks the platform, but also because she screws up the algorithm. Since she lets audience members choose her guys, the funneling curation is constantly frustrated.


The past as identity prison

The ability to cull the digital exhaust of our past, organize it, and then apply it to the present is most pervasive with quotidian experiences: we keep getting the same kind of movie recommendations from Netflix, the same kind of meal suggestions from Seamless. But there's a distinct way our past can reach into the present and trap our identity.


Everyone has exceptional moments in their lives. These may be significant accomplishments that accurately reflect a deep truth about our existence. An example would be a judge whose lifelong dedication to the law is rewarded with a nomination to a significant bench. But, there are also exceptional moments which really are exceptions. They may be notable, but don’t necessarily correspond with the full span of an individual’s life. Even so, internet scouring robots will likely find some evidence of these moments, and may relentlessly attach them to our current reality.


Take the case of a neighborhood toddler gymnasium run for decades by a woman who fell into a bizarre conflict with a neighbor. Their colorful battle ended up in the local, national, and international press, and will forever govern who she is, at least as it’s determined by the grinding force of online search engines.


The relentless big data power to connect names, places and people through time and across diverse information sources means that the most digitally harvestable event of an individual’s biography – even if it’s only tangential to the lifetime trajectory – threatens to dominate the identity.


This is a point Edward Snowden consistently makes: one isolated act or mistake in one’s past, at one time was something you could outgrow (people would forget), or move away from (in a new town, no one’s heard the story). Now, however, one episode can become inescapable.


Ethics of privacy/identity against Tinder: Why you should delete the app

The ethical dilemma surrounding big data involves privacy and exposure, and becomes real as a threat to identity: I can't be me, and I can't be someone else.


I can't be me because I don't want to be ridiculed on Tinder: Live, so my profile retreats toward the anonymity of the inconspicuous.


I can't be someone else because the Tinder feedback loop keeps setting me up with the same partner (different name) over and again.

Ethics of convenience for Tinder: Why you should keep the app

Finding someone by touching a screen is good. No one seriously denies that Tinder works (just count the downloads), and while users don’t always get what they want, when they do, it comes faster and easier than it would otherwise. So, facility holds intrinsic value: it's worth having.


But at what cost? The objection to algorithmic romance is that the price is too high (even when, or especially when, it's free). We might meet someone almost effortlessly, but we definitely lose privacy and, consequently, identity.


There are two responses:



The trade-off is worth it. Even if privacy and the ability to define ourselves in the world is diminished by Tinder, the benefits outweigh them. That's why the app is so popular.

  • It may be that my profile gets ridiculed at Tinder: Live. And, it may be that fear of ridicule leads me to tone down my opinions and expressions and become bland, but that's an acceptable cost for the romantic benefit. As long as Tinder keeps setting me up, I'm fine with the sacrifices.
  • It may be that I always get set up with the same kind of person, and it may be that I'm getting into a rut where the identical story keeps playing out, but that's still better than a blind date, or the singles’ bar. I'm just willing to sacrifice some uniqueness and variety in life for an almost sure thing.


In straight ethical terms, what I get as convenience is worth more than what I surrender of my privacy.



The dilemma is false.


The collapse of privacy doesn't necessarily lead to the constriction and loss of identity, only to a requirement: new strategies need to be developed to create unique selves in a world without privacy.


In other words, we can learn to be just fine in a reality without privacy.


So, it may be hard to play the game of romance (to pose as cool, or seductive, or darkly intriguing, or warm and caring) when there's the overhanging threat that you'll be highlighted and ridiculed at Tinder: Live, but hard is not the same as impossible. Even if everyone already knows everything about us – and even if our information is totally exposed to the uses and abuses of others – we can still find ways to be someone interesting and unique, and we'll still find opportunities to become someone new, to try new things and people and experiences.


In straight ethical terms, we don't need privacy to craft an identity for ourselves. Stronger, we may not need privacy at all.


Convenience and the transparent self


There’s a connection between convenience and transparency. Facilitating lives – catering to individual tastes, interests, and conditions – requires knowing about those lives. The more Tinder knows about you, the better the chances of matches and romance.


Going to the extreme, pure convenience requires total knowledge. If perfectly satisfying partners are going to be delivered to our desires, then the matching algorithm is going to need to know the most intimate details about what we want. Even the most intimate particulars of our cravings – maybe things we barely admit to ourselves – will need to be included.


The same point goes for algorithmic capitalism generally: maximizing facility requires transparent consumers. Everything must be known.


These are the questions:

  • Practical: Is transparency possible? Is there any way for everything about me to be known by others? What would that kind of life look like?
  • Individual: Is there a way for me to establish my own identity in the world if everything about me is constantly revealed?
  • Ethical: Is the life of pure transparency something worth pursuing? Do I go for that if it's offered?

3V beyond control

Tinder: Live captures what big data is, and what it does.


Big data is information expanding past human comprehension in three directions.

  • Volume: The number of pixels and bits responsible for any single Tinder match couldn't be counted by a human in a lifetime.
  • Variety: On the Tinder platform, tabular data about people mixes with images, locations, algorithms...
  • Velocity: Profiles, matches, messages, they all need to happen now.


What big data does is overflow. Once the personal information escapes into digitalization, there’s no way to contain it, or limit its interaction with other data and realities. It's so far gone that we don't even know what we don't know: Most of the Tinder: Live victims will never even learn how brutally their profiles got monetized in a dank barroom, or how easily their romantic data converted into laughter and pity.



Tinder: Live asks a simple question that echoes the fundamental big data dilemma: Is it worth it? Should I delete the social app, or sign up for two more? What's more valuable, the privacy I could preserve, or the facility I may gain?

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