Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Big Data--To Be Wowed or Wary: Two Views

I was lucky to be able to drop in on the Big Data Workshop here at the Annenberg School, Big Data and the Transformation of the Public Information Environment: Implications for Public Health (March 19, 2013), where panelists from academic and commercial sectors met to discuss the new information ecosystem (think tidal wave) produced from social media--Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr and the like.  While most everyone in the room was either already working with this data--collecting it, asking questions of it, re-purposing it--or has designs on such, there is also a general buzz in the culture about the power and uses of big data. I'd like to recommend two books that tug in opposing directions on the topic. Neither of these are academic books per se but academics and non-academics are reading them. The first is upbeat and visionary:  Big Data: A Revolultion That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier. Writes Lawrence Lessig, "Every decade, there are a handful of books that change the way you look at everything. This is one of those books. Society has begun to recon the change that big data will bring. This book is an incredibly important start. " And speaking of tidal waves, Clay Shirky's metaphor about water may a good way to think about big data. "Just as water is wet in a way that individual water molecules aren't, big data can reveal information in a way that individual bits of data can't. The authors show us the surprising ways that enormous, complex, and messy collections of data can be used to predict everything from shopping patterns to flu outbreaks."

But Evgeny Morozov isn't buying any of this in To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Observes the New Scientist: “Evgeny Morozov does a good job of dispelling 'big data' hype...If Silicon Valley is a party, Evgeny Morozov is the guy who turns up late and spoils the fun. The valley loves ambitious entrepreneurs with world-changing ideas. Morozov is, in his own words, an 'Eastern European curmudgeon.' He's wary of quick fixes and irritated by hype. He's the guy who saunters over to the technophiles gathered around the punch bowl and tells them…how misguided they are. Morozov should be invited all the same, because he brings a caustic yet thoughtful skepticism that is usually missing from debates about technology." 

Throughout the book two dominant ideologies, solutionism and "Internet-centrism," are questioned. Morozov contends that "Silicon Valley's promise of eternal amelioration has blunted our ability to do this questioning. Who today is mad enough to challenge the virtues of eliminating hypocrisy from politics? Or of providing more information--the direct result of self-tracking--to facilitate decision making? Or of finding new incentives to get people interested in saving humanity, fighting climate change, or participating in politics? Or of decreasing crime? To question the appropriateness of such interventions, it seems, is to question the Enlightenment itself. And yet I feel that such questioning is necessary. Hence the premise of this book: Silicon Valley's quest to fit us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude and perfection--and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity, and imperfection--will prove to be prohibitively expensive in the long run...this high cost remains hidden from public view and will remain so as long as we, in our mindless pursuit of this silicon Eden, fail to radically question our infatuation with a set of technologies that are often lumped together under the deceptive label of "the Internet"...Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing, all of these are constitutive of human freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well." --Introduction (p. xiii--xiv)

As I write this these titles are not at Van Pelt yet; they will be soon. But I bought Annenberg copies so if anyone wants to intercept them before I send them off for cataloging, let me know.

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