“Data Baby” book review: navigating a life under surveillance

Sussanah Breslin, the subject of a psychological experiment for over 30 years, has stories that just might send shivers down your spine.

In Data Baby: My Life in a Psychological Experiment, Susannah Breslin narrates her life's journey, encompassing experiences from battling breast cancer to establishing herself as a journalist in the adult entertainment industry.

The focal point revolves around the extensive experiment she was a subject of for decades. When just a toddler, Breslin's parents enrolled her in a laboratory preschool at the University of California, Berkeley. She was among hundreds of children studied as part of research aiming to predict their future paths.

“It struck me that the examiners, with their close study, active listening, and studious note-taking, had taught me how to be a journalist,” Breslin writes. Navigating the stormy life of hers, she decided to find out whether the study had essentially known her better than she knew herself.

“I had fantasized that by finding my data I would find the real me.”

The book is a memoir – Breslin was frank that she didn’t want to actually write one – rather than a comprehensive analysis of the unprecedented study [Block and Block Longitudinal Study 1969-1999].

While not everyone will be psyched to read yet another memoir of a woman on a quest to find her true self, Breslin's thoughts on being surveilled and her lack of privacy do resonate with today’s digital landscape.

We’re all data babies, she writes. At least the experiment she was a part of was for scientific enlightenment. What do we sacrifice our privacy for?

A lot of people in my bubble follow this idea: "Behave online as if everything could become public, and you wouldn't feel embarrassed." The life details we put out there willingly, seemingly with no self-control of keeping our holiday and children’s pictures to ourselves, combined with what hackers have stolen from us or companies failed to protect, are enough to build our digital twin – a doppelganger if you will.

Personally, I don’t obsess about my private details being somewhere online – I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’m sacrificing some of my privacy in exchange for the benefits of technology, such as fitness tracking.

Breslin accurately captures a very important aspect of being surveilled – even if just by Big Tech aiming to exploit your data for social engineering and convince you to buy more stuff.

“Someone was the studier. Someone was the studied. The former had all the power, and the latter had none.”

The one who watches you has power over you. Have you purchased a new shiny outfit for your work party? Was it intentional, or did you follow a “random” ad boasting a huge discount just when you needed it?

Ads are rarely random. You don't even need to Google something for Facebook to show you an intrusive but relevant app. Once, I complained to my friend – IN PERSON – that my sandal just broke. And what do you know – five minutes later, I unlocked my phone to scroll through my social media feed and saw a bunch of shoe ads from stores just around the corner!

“In Menlo Park, down the peninsula, Facebook had erected a panopticon from which it could see everything but into which few could see.”

I will refrain from giving my opinion on this memoir – as with Matthew Perry’s and many others’ self-reflection books, I believe we need to remain impartial observers of people’s journeys through life and treat similar books as part of that journey.

Ultimately, Data Baby serves as a thought-provoking commentary on the modern reality of constant surveillance and the ways in which our lives and choices are influenced by those who observe us, wielding power through the information they gather.

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