Data Shock

Data Shock

Here are three short observations on data, which may provide a basis for discussion with pupils.

1. What we can learn from the Ice Age

A few weeks ago I went to the Ice Age art exhibition at the British Museum. These artefacts were 40,000 years old! Over lunch with a relative who works there, we were discussing whether the stuff we are producing now will still be around in 40,000 years’ time. I suggested that even it was, it wouldn’t be accessible. I’m going by my own experience here: boxes of diskettes in the loft containing articles and books I’ve written, and to all intents and purposes inaccessible unless I can find this portable diskette reader I bought about ten years ago. And that’s not even mentioning the book reviews (of my own books) which I posted online, and which disappeared when the service provider decided to pull the plug.

That afternoon, I visited an exhibition at Digital Shoreditch. One of the exhibits was about the beginning of the world wide web. Apparently, the very first web page was produced in 1991 – and there is no record of it. No saved original version, no screenshot, no nothing.

So there you have it: you can look at things made 40,000 years ago, but not something made just over 20 years ago. The Ice Age people buried their stuff (perhaps more by accident than design? Maybe they were slobs who just chucked things on the ground and left them there!)

We have this paradoxical situation in that we live in the most monitored and recorded society ever, as far as I know, and yet the things we produce are, in any practical sense, largely ephemeral. If what we create has any meaning for us, we need to find a way of “burying” it.

A question to put to students might be: does any of this matter? That’s not a technology question, but it arises out of the way we use and interact with technology.

2. Who saves their stuff?

A related matter: it’s been in the news recently that loads of people lose important photos because they don’t back up their digital collections. See, for example, the article in the Daily Mail about it.

Here’s a practical problem to put to students: can you come up with a technical solution, eg an app, that will help non-technical people to not lose their photos?

3. Your portable data bank

Have you ever stopped to think about how much personal data you carry around with you? I didn’t until last week when, just before I went to bed, I wanted to put something in my wallet. It wasn’t there. I fumbled around inside my jacket pocket, but it wasn’t there either. It was dark, and I didn’t want to switch the lights on in case I woke Elaine up. So I made a list of all the things I had in my wallet so that I could start to make the necessary phone calls in the morning.

It turned out that I had over a dozen different items, eg credit card, drivers licence, membership cards, which together had my name, address, signature, bank details, and a reasonably accurate thumbnail sketch of my interests. Extremely worrying.

Fortunately, in the morning I discovered that, in the dark, I had been fumbling around in the wrong jacket!

Now, I take only the things I will need for that day. Much safer.

It might be interesting to ask the kids what they might learn about themselves were their bag or purse to fall into someone else’s hands. Perhaps this could lead into a discussion of how much we inadvertently give away about ourselves even if, like me, you are very mindful of behaving safely.

cross-posted on

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT consultant with over 35 years of experience in education. He publishes the ICT in Education website and the newsletter “Computers in Classrooms."