we are our patterns

[repost from 2010]

We are our patterns. I’ve been thinking about how many ways this is true. Certainly our habits, the little repeated actions we do or don’t do every day, determine many outcomes: whether we lose 10 pounds, learn a language, get cirrhosis of the liver. You’re not a gardener unless you garden, nor a runner unless you run. Habits are intimately connected to identity.

I think living things, especially conscious things, are processes—we are coalescent waves passing through time. Conscious thought or experience is collapsing that wave function at a specific moment. I’m not the same person, at a cellular level or in a conscious sense, that I was a year ago… or five minutes ago. Yet I am the same person, in the sense that there are unique patterns (of cells, of thoughts, of behaviors) that make me me. In that sense we are patterns, too.

As waves, we leave digital ripples everywhere. We travel, shop, carry phones, read online, skype, use mobile apps, post on blogs, drive rental cars… our presence, location, and the context of our activities cause ripples in the information space. The ripples we make bounce off each other and interact with other ripples.

In the past, our digital ripples occurred in a vast ocean of unintelligible intersecting wavelets. But lately it’s become clear that even in chaotic storms of data, our unique patterns, our identities, can often be teased out. Our patterns shine through even if we try to hide.

On one hand, it’s disconcerting that it’s harder to be anonymous than you might think. Thankfully many people are working on how to ensure digital anonymity. On the other hand, maybe our unique patterns can’t be suppressed… just like we can’t become invisible or stop our hearts from beating. Our patterns cease only when we cease.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that we are ONLY patterns. You can’t capture my pattern, mimic it with a computer, and duplicate my consciousness—we’re particles, too. But our wave nature is sure interesting.

More info:

In the last few years there have been some eye-opening examples of companies releasing anonymized datasets, only to find out some people could be re-identified by cross-referencing with other datasets:
health records

Latanya Sweeney found in 2000 that 87% of all Americans could be identified using only their zip code, sex, and birth date.

Arvind Narayanan – privacy and anonymity researcher