Big Data

In a culture that celebrates and rewards “bigness,” we now have a new Big.  Big Data.

Last week Evgeny Morozov wrote a review of two new books celebrating where Big Data is taking us.  Patrick Tucker’s The Naked Future and Alex Pentland’s Social Physics both predict and applaud the coming day when our smartphones and personal devices will have so much data about our lives that they will be able to accurately predict our future, model our behavior and provide employers with information enabling them to maximize worker efficiency.  Read the review HERE.

If that sounds weird or scary, just reflect on how much things have changed over the last ten years due to the collection and dissemination of data at the personal level.  Now project that kind of thing forward and it’s not hard to imagine a day in the near future when our smartphones will tell us when we’re going to have a flat tire, the precise health consequences of skipping going to the gym today, and the optimum amount of sleep for our own personal productivity.  Mine might tell me which garden should be watered and in what quantity, what crops to plant based on analysis of market sales data, and the point at which my back will give out if I don’t start doing yoga.

Morozov writes:

Both books reveal — mostly through their flaws — that the Big Data debate needs grounding in philosophy. When Big Data allows us to automate decision-­making, or at least contextualize every decision with a trove of data about its likely consequences, we need to grapple with the question of just how much we want to leave to chance and to those simple, low-tech, unautomated options of democratic contestation and deliberation.

As we gain the capacity to predict and even pre-empt crises, we risk eliminating the very kinds of experimental behaviors that have been conducive to social innovation. Occasionally, someone needs to break the law, engage in an act of civil disobedience or simply refuse to do something the rest of us find useful. The temptation of Big Data lies precisely in allowing us to identify and make such loopholes unavailable to deviants, who might actually be dissidents in disguise.

It may be that the first kind of power identified by Agamben is actually less pernicious, for, in barring us from doing certain things, it at least preserves, even nurtures, our capacity to resist. But as we lose our ability not to do — here Agamben is absolutely right — our capacity to resist goes away with it. Perhaps it’s easier to resist the power that bars us from using our smartphones than the one that bars us from not using them. Big Data does not a free society make, at least not without basic political judgment.

It’s important to stay mindful of these things, I think.  But as they do not happen in one fell swoop, I expect that by and large we won’t even notice as Big Data creeps deeper into our lives.  Then one day, there we will be, for better or worse.

Advertisements

24 comments on “Big Data

  1. Jeff says:

    I don’t have a cellphone or a TV and I don’t Twitter, Facebook or Google. But I read. Am I missing something? I don’t think so …

    Big Data is all about late capitalism and its voracious appetite for profit. Commodification of human beings is the last frontier. Resist!!

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Certainly advertisers are using it as a way to identify their specific target audiences and to manipulate their behavior. Avoiding advertising (in the ways you do) or just being immune to their tactics is a good way to resist. Sometimes it feels like I’m shaking my fist at them, other times like I’m laughing at them and other times like I’m rolling my eyes. And sometimes I find myself thinking, “Hmm… That looks interesting.” But seriously I don’t think I’ve ever had an internet ad prompt me to purchase anything. All their effort is wasted on me.

      Like

      • Jeff says:

        What ads? I don’t see no stinkin’ ads! I use AdBlock Plus for Firefox and it makes the ads go away. I encourage everyone to use it – it’s a plugin for Firefox. It’s great!

        Like

  2. shoreacres says:

    I have perhaps twenty years left on this earth. I intend to live them in as much freedom as possible.

    Ergo: no television. No smartphone. No Facebook. LinkedIn is about to go, although I do find Twitter useful as a source of news about the weather and places like Liberia that don’t get a lot of publicity otherwise.

    When I leave home, I often leave my phone there, too. Remember when phones sat on a table in the entryway, and could be answered only if someone was there? No one freaked out if they placed a call and there wasn’t an answer. They called back later.

    I’ve moved all my shopping to a local grocery that doesn’t use those “discount cards” that track your every purchase, and I only use Ixquick for internet searches. Like the grocery store, Ixquick offers fewer choices, but it leaves me my basic choice — to do my shopping for pasta or information with a degree of privacy.

    And by the by, the lack of privacy in all matters medical is one of the best reasons for healthy eating and being otherwise pro-active in terms of health. The day will come when my refusal to answer irrelevant questions will lead to my being refused treatment. Don’t believe that? It’s coming.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I’ve never heard of Ixquick. I’ll have to look into it. I’m annoyed by the internet ads that reveal they’re spying on me and sharing information. If I look at a book on Amazon, then ads for that book appear when I go on facebook or gmail. I like Manswhirld’s suggestion below. Maybe I should mess with them. As St. Wendell put it:

      As soon as the generals and the politicos
      can predict the motions of your mind,
      lose it. Leave it as a sign
      to mark the false trail, the way
      you didn’t go.

      Be like the fox
      who makes more tracks than necessary,
      some in the wrong direction.
      Practice resurrection.

      Like

  3. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, one thing that I really like about your blog is that you always seem to be able to make me stop and think about things that impact my life. It’s hard to imagine how we have progressed far beyond the magical Dick Tracy’s watch of my youth. Our mobile device called a cell phone really does carry a life time of information for each individual person. And now the Cloud puts it all together. It’s quite amazing how fast it has developed and at the same time scary how much information is available on any person. Some will say they are flying under the radar by not having a cell phone or TV but they are deceived. Just walking through a Walmart puts my face on recording cameras in every isle. The big brother of Orwell’s 1984 has been here for many years and we just haven’t recognized it. City street cameras with face recognition are on a large number of intersections of my city. It’s virtually (pun intended) impossible to fly under the radar. In another 20 years the SyFy of today could be the reality of tomorrow. I hope I never live long enough to witness the implanting of computer chips in the brain to improve the quality of life or the development of robots that are self aware with much greater intelligence than humans. It seems like an unlikely thing now but many decades ago so was Dick Tracy’s watch.

    Have a great Big Data day.

    Like

    • Jeff says:

      It’s not about not having a cell phone or a TV, nebraskadave, it’s about retaining or regaining control of one’s life. With a cellphone, you are connected 24/7 and having a TV is like being fed intravenously. I also don’t do the Cloud. As for WalMart (and I know you weren’t picking on me!), I don’t do WalMart. I know that in some places of the country, there is no option, but I have options and as long as I do, I’ll refuse to patronize WalMart. Or McDonalds. It might be impossible to “fly under the radar”, but I’m going to make the NSA and corporate America work for their living. I agree with shoreacres. I’ll die resisting – it’s in my blood!

      Like

    • Bill says:

      It is nearly impossible to retain privacy these days. Even people who only get their mail at PO boxes, only use the internet at the library, only pay with cash, etc. are easily observed. I’ve googled people like that and with a little effort I can find their address. Then with Google Earth I can look at where they live. Of course sophisticated spies can do much more than that.

      There was an old TV show (from back when I still had a TV) called Max Headroom. It was futuristic and if I recall correctly in the society depicted in the show it was a crime to turn off the television. Policy was set by opinion polls, which were constantly being taken. Everyone was required to have credit. The rebels had no TV and no credit.

      Like

  4. Jeff says:

    To amplify on my reply to nebraskadave … I’m reading a blog entry that clarifies my objections and complaints to Big Data. I’ve not read Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange, but if anyone here has, I’d love to know what you think of it. My take on “word flu” is that it applies not just to the written word, but also to any of the word’s embodied forms – film, visual advertising, signs of all kinds; in short, semiotic instances. Having no TV or a cellphone is a rejection of the unending assault of signs upon me.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I’m glad we ditched TV years ago. But by using the internet we’re increasingly subjected to advertising–it’s just more focused than the shotgun-blast TV commercials. There are even ads on this blog, because I won’t pay the price WordPress charges for ad-free blogs. I’m just counting on y’all not to buy whatever they’re selling. 🙂

      Like

    • bobraxton says:

      my father died well before the Internet and when I google his name, he turns up — dying seems no help, either.

      Like

  5. Jeff says:

    Oops! … forgot to include the link to Amazon, where you can read about the book.

    Like

  6. So many thoughts running in both directions as I use my laptop and sattelite Internet connection on a blog site that is responsible for 17-19 % of all Internet traffic. Think about the technology that makes all of this possible. The dilemma we face is how in the heck do we separate the good from the bad. If I stop to think much about the future I am both frightened and intrigued. The power to do good is always matched by the power to do bad, and what we are developing/have developed has incredible power. Yes, I love the fact that I can instantly communicate and make friends with people around the world. And yes I hate (a strong word for a strong emotion) that my every word might be monitored by interests whose sole interest in me is to control or make a profit off of me. –Curt

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Those are my sentiments exactly Curt. I think the internet is amazing and it’s benefits are awesome. If I had to give up all electronic technology save one thing, I’d keep the internet. But I also know how ugly, dangerous and invasive it can be. I have the same love/hate relationship with it.

      Like

  7. bobraxton says:

    control of one’s life is an illusion (or delusion) “I will tear down my barns and build bigger barns” – all at once or all together, as if by one blow: The quake flattened the houses at one fell swoop.
    Origin:
    1535–45; variant (with close ō ) of Middle English swopen, Old English swāpan to sweep1 ; cognate with German schweifen

    Like

  8. MansWhirld says:

    Maybe we could start a new market…pay people to carry our smartphones in different places while we go about our business elsewhere. Sometimes I just enjoy messing with Big Data 🙂

    Like

  9. EllaDee says:

    I may be being overly optimistic but I hope not… so many have attempted to sell so much over the course of human history but humans somewhat like cats give the illusion of compliance then do exactly as they please.
    I marvel at the technology that reflects my life back at me… and then go about living it.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I insist on being an optimist. Over time we’ll sort the good from the bad, keep what helps and discard what doesn’t. We are privileged to live in an amazing time.

      Like

  10. Jeff says:

    The link to the review is broken, it seems. I found a discussion about this issue on another blog and the link given there is from the New York Times. I read the review and the author is spot-on. Agamben is correct: there is “do” and “not do”. There is a very big difference between can “do” and can “not do”. When the ability to “not do” is closed off, which Big Data (another euphemism for capitalism) is intent on doing, we need to sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, not many people are doing so – they are too enamored of their gadgets.

    Wendell Berry was right.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s