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Sensitive Segments

Sensitive Segments    —by Jinny Batterson

A long time ago, before I became totally technically obsolete, I worked for a number of years in what was then called data processing—now more often labeled “information technology.”  The media and the structure of the data I worked with changed over time. First there were punched card files, later storage on computer tapes, then multi-plattered disk drives, and, still later, all sorts of increasingly dense mass storage devices.  At first, each separate computer application had its own files, so there was a tremendous amount of duplication among the various files, with a high probability for errors and mismatches. Later, someone figured out that it would be possible to create a data hierarchy, with a top level “executive” or “parent” piece that controlled access to all the others. This reduced duplication and mismatch difficulties, but meant that to access any piece of data required understanding a rigid data structure, with its different levels and dependencies. 

During the final decade of my data processing work, I was introduced to what were then called “relational databases.” As the expense of computer hardware continued to decline and the speed of data retrieval continued to increase, any data hierarchy that might be lurking in the background was masked. Given a properly constituted database, it became possible for programmers to compose relatively simple inquiries into multiple data fields, no matter how they were positioned in the overall data structure. To me, this way of viewing data was much more intuitive than trying to remember whether “segment A” was a parent segment to “segment B,” or whether both were same-level children of “segment C” in some artificially constructed hierarchy. The catch, in the somewhat hierarchical organizations where I worked, was that some data was deemed off-limits or unnecessary for some members of the agency or firm. For example, the Personnel Department might need to access personal information that was considered either too sensitive or irrelevant for the Accounting Department or the Education Department, and vice versa. 

So some smart computer software guru introduced the concept of “sensitive segments” for data base access.  All the data was stored somewhere, but if you were in the Personnel Department, you could only retrieve data from those segments to which you were given access. If you were in Accounting or Education, you would be blind to those segments whose data was reserved exclusively for Personnel. They did not relate to your job description. From your perspective, they did not exist. 

In the glut of our current information environment, it may seem as though the concept of “sensitive segments” is obsolete. In theory, any of us can access most of the data stored online anywhere in the world via the “world wide web.” However, precisely because there is so much information available in electronic form, it becomes totally impossible for any single person or group to retrieve it all, let alone make any sort of sense of it. Therefore, the Googles and other search engines of our age have devised ingenious algorithms to bring us just those “sensitive segments” they believe will most interest and/or please us. Our search-engine-mediated levels of sensitivity have only increased.

Amid the cries of horror at the polarization and dysfunction of our political and social systems, relatively few point to this sensitization as a partial cause. Few stop to remember that any topical query will bring back the “most popular” web pages on that topic first. For example, if I do a Google search on the word “bias,” it brings back about 207 million results, one screenful at a time, with several dictionary definitions as the leading entries. Such a ranking system helps to make sense of lots of relatively simple topics, yet it also opens a way for more and more extreme distortions of the more complex aspects of reality. Unless I type in a specific web address, I are going to be shown just the information deemed by the search engine software as a “sensitive segment” first.

Each of us reaches adulthood having certain segment sensitivities, based on our genetic make-up, our upbringing, and our exposure to various life events.  Some of us, for example, are drawn to emphasize the role of individual initiative in fostering success; others are primed to stress the role of luck. Some feel entitled to a large share of the world’s material goods; others remark on patterns of systemic discrimination and oppression that deprive many of even a small share of such goods.

It is very difficult, a whole life’s work and then some, to unlearn layers of bias and discrimination we learned early in life. It’s crucial that we minimize the distortions fomented by our increasing dependence on Internet-mediated “sensitive segments.” We need the balance of maintaining and strengthening interactions with real people with real lives whose opinions and experiences may be quite different from our own.     

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