Holy Wild, Science & Civilization

Data, Identity & Community in the Digital Age

This morning on his blog, Jeff shares a fascinating exploration of what folks in the tech industry these days are calling “Big Data,” and the illusion of control it creates:

Part of this zeitgeist is the modern tech industry excitement about the possibilities of ‘Big Data’, a rapidly-emerging state in which we’ll have so much data on so many people and so many financial transactions that we’ll cross some kind of singularity into perfect knowledge, a threshold beyond which we’ll find new markets, new products, and vast new vistas of profit.

Maybe so. But there’s a big pitfall that comes with Big Data. If you’re given a big pile of facts, you start to imagine that you know more than you did before; that you can just crunch some equations and run some statistics, and the numbers will tell you what to do. You’re tempted to believe that you don’t need to get the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of things, as long as you have enough ‘what’.

Thom Yorke_Charis TsevisThe entire article, “Big Data Will Blind You,” is worth a careful read followed by a leisurely ponder. In it, Jeff raises a lot of questions about the assumptions we make when it comes to the relationship between knowing the facts and actually understanding what those facts can tell us. He uses the recent study on the effect of geography on human language as a perfect example of how our cultural biases can blind us to unexpected interpretations, or even lead us to see patterns where none exist at all.

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the article, though, is something Jeff touches on only briefly at the end:

The bottom line is that, as essential as data is, it does not answer any question by itself. Whether in linguistics, business, science, or our own lives, the raw data of our experience has to be analyzed for patterns; and we’ll never see those patterns unless we have unblinkered our eyes.

As a linguist and computer science engineer, Jeff’s focus is mostly on the limits of Big Data: how it might not be the Holy Grail that the tech industry would like it to be.

But what does that mean for the rest of us? For those of us more likely to be on the receiving end of Big Data-driven marketing strategies and social media algorithms, the limits of Big Data are both a blessing and a warning.

On the one hand, you can rest a little easier knowing that all that information Facebook and Google (not to mention various governments) have been gathering on you — about your online media consumption habits, your spending patterns, even your travel destinations and daily routines — doesn’t actually give them as much power and control over your life as they’ve led you to believe. Because we humans are constantly filtering and interpreting the raw data of our experience at a most basic, subconscious level, we tend to assume that corporations (which we’ve recently been told are people, too) are doing the same thing. The truth is, even the most sophisticated statistical models of human behavior these organizations use are still only crude, cartoonish sketches compared to the complexity of real, living, breathing human societies. You — yes, you! — are a moving, thinking, sensing, growing, infinitely creative being in relationship with countless other creative beings, and that cannot be reduced to a data set. You are so much more than your “what.” The tech industry can easily lose sight of this vital truth, which means that you will always have the home field advantage.

On the other hand, the birth of Big Data demands that we acknowledge the death of the online wilderness, where hackers and bloggers once roamed free and an idealized “democracy of information” prevailed. We are no longer living in a virtual State of Nature. Sure, there are still pockets of protected open-source communities out there, but for the most part, the internet as we know it has been tamed, civilized. We can mourn the loss of an untamed virtual wilderness while at the same time seeing that this civilizing influence has made the internet and its potential more accessible to more people than ever before.

one world_Genista

This accessibility comes at a cost: our online relationships, like our real life relationships, can easily be yoked into the service of economic profit and government oversight. Some of this oversight might be good (for instance, laws that protect against anonymous cyber-harassment and abuse), and some of it will be bad (like the controversial decision by the UK government to impose opt-out censorship on its citizens). One thing that we can count on, though, is that these attempts to tame and direct human online interactions will never be as competent and effective as we hope or fear. In other words: we can no longer afford to be naive or idealistic about our online lives. We have to take direct, personal responsibility for the virtual spaces we create and the online relationships we nurture. Spending all your time on Facebook is the virtual equivalent of hanging out at the mall, surrounded primarily by businesses trying to sell you things. If you rely on Facebook to stay connected to friends, you will quickly find that the friends Facebook chooses for you — the friends whose updates and posts show up most in your news feed — are those people who best cater to their bottom line. Would you give a corporation that much control over your “real life” relationships? Hell no!

The good news is that if we reconcile ourselves to the changing reality of our online communities, we can take steps to mitigate the negative impact of a “civilized” internet. We are up to the task. For better or worse, humans have been coping with civilization for thousands of years. Many of these lessons will translate into the brave new world being built on the foundation of Big Data. We know that education and literacy, creativity and integrity, compassion and humor all play a role in creating human cultures that are sustainable, just and meaningful. If we keep these values in sight, we can resist the alluring promises and potential nightmares of Big Data; we can stay rooted in the things that really matter.

*Yup, Jeff Lilly, the guy I’m married to. So now you have a pretty good idea of what dinner conversations are like at our house.

Photo Credits:
• “Thom Yorke & Coachella by the numbers,” by Charis Tsevis (CC) [source]
• “one world,” by Kai Schreiber (CC) [source]

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