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.
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.