Anti-Data Mining? Welcome to the Omniscient Economy

Media Guy Knows Who's Going to Win 'Idol', and You Can Too

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I know who's going to win "American Idol." Or, rather, I'm going to know who's going to win "American Idol" before the results are final -- and who's going to get booted off each week along the way. And you can too. knew Taylor Hicks would win 'American Idol' last year. knew Taylor Hicks would win 'American Idol' last year. Credit: Ray Mickshaw

Perhaps last season you read about some of the controversy over, a site started by a Cleveland tech geek named Jim Hellriegel that allows people to vote for their favorite "Idol" contestants automatically. The free, downloadable DialIdol software at the site can turn your modem-equipped Windows PC into a personal assistant that can dial in to vote as many times as you want it to -- and it'll keep trying even if it gets busy signals.

Fox briefly blew a gasket and sent Hellriegel a cease-and-desist letter, but it turned out he wasn't doing anything illegal.

He actually started distributing his software during the fourth season, but last year's (fifth) "Idol" season was the tipping point: The loose confederation of computers running DialIdol software collectively placed more than a million votes.

The cool thing about achieving that sort of critical mass is the clever extra thing DialIdol can do: It records and analyzes the instances of busy signals when its users are trying to vote. The more busy signals, the more people are voting for a given Idol -- and Hellriegel used that information to correctly predict winners and finalist bootees each week during last season. Chris Daughtry's surprise outster? It wasn't a surprise to DialIdol. Elliott Yamin getting booted from the final three? And Taylor Hicks beating out Katharine McPhee for the title? DialIdol saw all that coming.

It stands to reason that if DialIdol gets big enough -- the more people who use DialIdol software across the country, the more statistically representative it becomes -- it could eliminate any element of surprise from the "Idol" proceedings.

Expect Fox to freak out again this season, but what can it really do? The show encourages everybody to vote as much as they want; if you're allowed to use your phone's redial button, why can't you use your computer to redial? As for the data DialIdol is capturing and parsing? They are not Fox's data; Fox doesn't own busy signals.

The DialIdol phenomenon, when you really think about it, is more than a bit unnerving, because what's being tallied and analyzed here is not data per se, but lack of data -- shadow data. Not data about votes, but data about attempted votes.

This is a different order of data mining. Call it anti-data mining. (Matter, antimatter -- it all matters.)

Plenty of marketers, of course, already watch not only what we do but what we don't do. Not only, for instance, what we're clicking on within a web page but what we're not clicking on.

What's changing is, while we're all used to the idea that our consumer behavior is being tracked and parsed, increasingly, all our everyday, run-of-the-mill human behavior -- behavior not necessarily directly connected to e-commerce -- is being tracked and parsed. And then someone, inevitably, figures out how to monetize that information.

Now imagine your life -- your increasingly networked, interconnected, Wi-Fied, Bluetoothed life -- as not just about what you do and don't do but about the data points and anti-data points you generate. Live a life enabled by ubiquitous computing -- like using your web-enabled smartphone -- and you become, in a sense, a series of core statistics. You're data upon data upon data. You're a personal economic indicator.

You're one giant, living, breathing spreadsheet. Everything you do or don't do rates.

Welcome to the Omniscient Economy.

The other thing that's been changing lately is that, increasingly, there's plenty of cheap space to store the Digital You. In November, Google's VP of European operations told a roomful of conference attendees that 10 years down the line, plummeting data-storage prices and ever-increasing miniaturization could result in an affordable iPod that could hold every single song ever commercially released. And, "in 12 years," he added, "why not an iPod that can carry any video ever produced?"

For that matter, why not a giant spreadsheet somewhere that tracks everything you've ever done -- or not done?

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