Can Big Data Tell Us Who We Are?


No one seems very interested in big data. Of course, there’s been no shortage of tweets, webinars, and blogs trying to sell us Big Data (capitals and all). National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan produced a glossy, imposing, even sexy coffee-table volume called The Human Face Big Data, but big data itself still hasn’t sparked many intelligent conversations between actual human beings.

This is true with conversations around data and personal information as well. They just aren’t happening, other than the rants from ubiquitous internet propagandists, who plasters their feeds with terrifying slogans about privacy. The truth is, privacy is minor concern compared to other questions about big data. It’s also somewhat moot at this point. Larger dangers loom.

Imagine a world where all of your choices are made for you by an algorithm based on an actuarial table of statistical data. You’re given the information deemed relevant to you based on this data. When you shop, your options are determined by this data, and by your computed “value” to the system. The cultural materials you have access to are determined by this same process. The world you see is highly personalized and subjective. With apologies to Wittgenstein, the limits of your shopping become the limits of your world.

In this world the choices you make are dictated by your health care plan and your “happiness” is optimized at every turn. Imagine that you live in a closed community and know little about the world outside it or you are a specialist in a team but don’t have access to the big picture. Both these groups generally have the same set of choices you do, with some overlap. Desired social and economic behaviors are rewarded with the “best options.” You travel safely along a predictable course plotted out with scientific certitude.

Far from being some future world scenario, if you think carefully, you will begin to recognize the world we already live in. Data collection, storage and analysis is huge business. Information is collected from us at every point: when we visit a website, at the point of sale in a store, what we search for on our phones, at the doctor’s office, and even when we walk down the street. Increasingly this data is individualized and available on the market, both as personal data and analytics. Different metrics yield demographic and economic insights about consumer groups and make predictions.

Data isn’t by any means neutral. How, why, and where the data is collected, as well as who it is collected from matters tremendously and loads the question of big data with any number of social, political, and economic questions. Consider:

Who owns the data? Venture capital has been pouring into health care to digitize records—where there is profit to be made, venture capital can be found. Selling enterprise software to managed care may be cake, but the icing is all the data that these hungry processors will have to crunch. This information is highly personalized and by its nature very personal (think about the forms you fill out at the family doctor).

Storage insecurity: More and more companies are opting for cloud storage, and no longer physically possess their data. Consumers face the same problem. Technological advances have made obsolete one data storage technology after another, forcing consumers to store their data in the cloud, such as Google Drive. A cloud-based storage solution is very vulnerable to data scraping and the terms of service that come with is ambiguous about security. On top of security concerns, some cloud storage providers have rules for what kind of images can be stored.

Intrusive technologies: Recent consumer products such as Google Glasses and Facebook Home are intrusive technologies that aggressively collect data and also “push” information, marking a sharp turn from the Internet as a “pull” medium. Google’s Eric Schmidt announced the company’s intention to move away from search way back in 2011. With Google Now voice search, the company is hoping to create bots that will anticipate what you want to search for before you think about it.

Can big data make us better?

smolanBig data is perhaps merely the latest of humankind’s attempts to organize social structures according to the principles of rationality, in the advancement of a political or philosophical ideal. Whether humanity will cooperate or not remains to be seen. Regardless of how rigidly social spaces are policed, there are certain to be anomalies, not the least of which we may call “human nature.”

No element has so bedeviled humankind’s experiments and theories of political and social utopia as humans themselves, in a thousand forms of conscious and unconscious obfuscation and defiance. Railing against the rationality of his time, epitomized by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a utopian socialist and revolutionary democrat, Dostoevsky’s savage protagonist in Notes from the Underground mused:

When in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the million of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their own interests, have left them in the background and rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten path, and have obstinately, willfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness.

You may laugh, laugh away, but only answer me: have man’s advantages been reckoned up with perfect certainty? Are there not some which have not only not been included but cannot possibly be included under any classification? You see, you gentlemen have, to the best of my knowledge, taken your whole register of human advantages from the averages of statistical figures and politico-economic formulas. Your advantages are prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace and so on. So that the man who should go openly and knowingly in opposition to this list should be a madman. But you know, what is so surprising: why does it happen that all these statisticians, sages and lovers of humanity, when they reckon up human advantages, leave out one? It would be no great matter, they would simply have to take this advantage, and add it to the list.

The trouble is this strange advantage does not fall under any classification and is not on any place on any list. I have a friend for instance, gentlemen, but of course he is your friend too; and indeed there is no one, no one to whom he is not a friend! When he prepares for any undertaking this gentlemen explains to you, elegantly and clearly, exactly how he must act in accordance with the laws of reason and truth. Within a quarter of an hour, without any sudden outside provocation, but simply through something inside himself which is stronger than all his interests, he will go off on quite another tack—that is in direct opposition to what he has been saying, in opposition to the laws of reason, in opposition to his own advantage, in opposition to everything!

I warn you that my friend is a compound personality and therefore it is difficult to blame him as an individual.

The fact is, gentlemen, that there really must exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantages, that there is an advantageous advantage (the very one omitted from the list) which is more important and more advantageous than all other advantages, for the sake of which a man if necessary is ready to act in opposition to all laws, against all these excellent and useful things, if only he can attain that fundamental, most advantageous advantage, which is dearer to him than all.


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