Your personal space is no longer physical – it's a global network of data

June 1, 2018 by Silvio Carta, The Conversation
Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided

In the digital world, any action we do generates data – whether browsing the internet, answering emails or messaging our friends. Translated into radio waves, this information can travel almost effortlessly through space in a split second. Data are all around us, invisibly occupying the space between ourselves and other objects in the built environment. My colleagues and I conducted a study to understand how the presence of all this data alters our understanding of personal and public spaces.

As a case study, we set up an open Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) in Plaza de Los Palos Grandes in Caracas, for people to connect free of charge for a limited period of time. A total of 123 people connected to our WLAN with their devices, sending and receiving packets of information to and from servers across the world.

From the packets, we extracted the location of the servers to which each user connected. In the image below, we generated one line for each connection established between the person and the servers. It demonstrates how the data generated by an email to a close friend, composed in the intimate between you and your device, has the potential to reach across the world.

Here's how it works: the smart phone converts your email into and sends the information to a WiFi router. It's then passed to your email provider's servers, then – through the internet's Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which controls the movement of data across the web – to the other provider's servers and to your friend's inbox.

Your personal space is no longer physical – it's a global network of data
Our participants sent and received information right across the world. Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided

Changing space

People tend to think that personal communication originates within the intimate dimension of our personal space. We consider the space immediately around us to be ours and personal – it's where we think, formulate ideas and speak with others. This study gave us the opportunity to consider how the shape of our personal space is changing as we live our digital lives in .

The term "personal space" has meant different things since architects, urbanists, sociologist and geographers started studying it. In the 1960s, personal space was thought of as the distances we maintain from others, to control our interactions with them. The size of this invisible aura could vary, depending on cultural values, the density of people around you and other circumstances.

Your personal space is no longer physical – it's a global network of data
The complexity of the data traffic emitted by each of us in the public space. Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided

Scholars have tried to argue that in the digital era, our "personal bubble" is not just physical – it's also virtual. They claim that your personal bubble is a membrane which filters the data you that send out and the information you receive back. It's the sum of all the settings and agreements across different digital platforms – including apps, social media and email – as well as the phone itself, which help you to manage your personal, group and public data and communications.

But our results show that in the digital realm, personal space isn't like a bubble which surrounds each person, helping to define the nature of their encounters, relationships, intimacies or invasions. In fact, it's more like a global network of connections, reaching everywhere, coming from each person whenever they send or receive a packet of data.

Our images show how personal space disperses through the atmosphere and materialises in someone else's device in a matter of seconds, leaving traces in a dispersed constellation of servers. Because of this, personal space has become dynamic – it changes in real time with our digital interactions.

Your personal space is no longer physical – it's a global network of data
The personal space as global net originating from each of us. Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided

Given how sensitive we are to invasions of our physical personal space, it's remarkable that many of us don't even realise the extent of our digital personal space, which is scattered around servers and other devices around the world. By visualising the massive size and dispersed form of our digital personal space, people will become more protective of their , taking a greater interest in the level of encryption, privacy and permissions granted to each app they use.

Personal space is no longer the immediate space that surrounds us and that moves with us. It is rather something more abstract – globally distributed and possibly everywhere at any time. The next time we look at our phone to send a text message, we should envision the real extent of our space, that goes to the other side of the globe in seconds to pin back to us. Our personal space is not a bubble anymore – it is a .

Explore further: Digital self helps in getting to know new people

Related Stories

Digital self helps in getting to know new people

June 13, 2017

This Aalto University study explored augmented reality interactions between strangers in the same space using an HMD (Head Mounted Display). There were 23 participants in 6 multi-party gatherings each involving 3 to 5 individuals, ...

Detecting and blocking leaky Android apps

May 22, 2015

Nine times out of ten, that Android app is connecting to multiple internet destinations without your knowledge, more than half of them require access to the sensitive, personal information on your mobile device in order to ...

Study says smartphones are eroding personal privacy

April 18, 2016

Private v. public, virtual v. real have converged in a world saturated by information technology. It seems impossible to divide the public from the personal. But when and where do we choose to share information about ourselves? ...

Scientists teach robots how to respect humans' personal space

December 22, 2017

Robots have a lot to learn about humans, including how to respect their personal space. Scientists at the Institute of Automatics of the National University of San Juan in Argentina are giving mobile robots a crash course ...

Recommended for you

Robots as tools and partners in rehabilitation

August 17, 2018

In future decades, the need for effective strategies for medical rehabilitation will increase significantly, because patients' rate of survival after diseases with severe functional deficits, such as a stroke, will increase. ...

Security gaps identified in internet protocol IPsec

August 15, 2018

In collaboration with colleagues from Opole University in Poland, researchers at Horst Görtz Institute for IT Security (HGI) at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) have demonstrated that the internet protocol IPsec is vulnerable ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rrwillsj
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 01, 2018
Let's ask the BND, NSA, RF-CPB, PRC-MSS and a thousand other acronyms of hundreds of countries, affiliated conglomerates and cooperative cartels.

Nope! Nobody is answering. Guess it's none of our business. Cause we're just the saps paying their salaries.

"Nothing to see here folks, just move along now!"

If we put our hands over our eyes? And put our hands over our ears? And put our hands over our mouths?

So versatile! We would qualify for the annual Good Citizen Patriot's Award. Neat-O!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.