Thinking About Big Data

At work I am immersed in matters of privacy — thorny issues that arise out of the confluence of developments in technology, business, politics and culture. By now most of us have probably heard of the term ‘big data‘. It’ll be a few years yet before we reap the fruits (both good and ill) of big data in really meaningful and society-changing ways. But that day is coming, and there are smart people out there already thinking about the implications of this.

Big data is a perfect poster child for the double-edged sword that is technology. Just as big data promises to save babies and make the world a better place, it has enormous potential to usher in an unprecedented age of surveillance and control beyond the wildest dreams of past authoritarian regimes (I would wager that present ones are working hard right now to realise this).

With that in mind recently there has been two great pieces on this topic, go check them out:

I want to quote from the conclusion to Crawford’s thoughtful piece:

… As historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison once wrote, all epistemology begins in fear — fear that the world cannot be threaded by reason, fear that memory fades, fear that authority will not be enough.

If the big-data fundamentalists argue that more data is inherently better, closer to the truth, then there is no point in their theology at which enough is enough [my emphasis]. This is the radical project of big data. It is epistemology taken to its limit. The affective residue from this experiment is the Janus-faced anxiety that is heavy in the air, and it leaves us with an open question: How might we find a radical potential in the surveillant anxieties of the big-data era?

To tackle a problem first requires understanding it. I don’t think we can afford to be ignorant about this.


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