Big Data, Small World

Earlier today, some friends of mine and I read and shared a rather frightening article about the use of big data to target very specific sorts of people with political advertising via social media [1].  As someone who works as a data analyst, the concerns about big data that are just starting to enter into the general consciousness are ones I have been pondering over myself for a long time [2].  In the sort of world we live in, those who have the power to draw conclusions from powerful chance-based algorithms and profit from it for commercial or political gain are not going to refrain themselves because of our desire for privacy.  This is true even if those algorithms are not foolproof.  I happened to take the test of my Facebook profile and it said that I was a female who had studied art in college, neither of which are true, but most of the rest of the insights were sound–even if they judged me to be an INTJ based on my general reflectiveness even though I usually show up as a slightly extroverted ENTJ in other personality tests.

What is the goal of big data?  If one reads the relevant literature about it, and there are at least a few books about it, some of them touting its insights and other works painting it as the sign of the impending apocalypse, one sees a general desire of seeing how people are like from their own behavior and not from their demographic data.  Admittedly, big data certainly uses demographic data, but it uses much more as well.  By connecting one’s decisions to demographic information and social media activity, companies can triangulate other aspects of your identity and figure out that you are a single and philosophical Christian but not a Catholic or Mormon, as is apparently obvious from my likes on Facebook.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; I do not happen to mind when Amazon suggests wonderful books for me to like based on the books I have already enjoyed, something that other sites are not quite as good at doing at present because their own motive to push certain books is a bit too transparent as of yet.

But there are more ominous uses for this that the article brings out, particularly in two ways.  Political campaigns can dig beneath surface statistics to see what people are like from what they like and can then target advertising to appeal to far more narrow markets than before, with a far greater effectiveness because the messages are not nearly so broad and watered down as mass marketing tends to be.  Instead of advertising on the basis of a lowest common denominator, they can use specific information inferred about you to make very specific appeals.  On the flip side, political campaigns can deliberately target negative information to people based on their likes and dislikes to make them less likely to vote because they would be likely to vote for one’s political opponent.  The results, if widely practiced, would lead to a deeply polarized and cynical electorate whose viewpoint of political parties and candidates and their motives and behaviors would be filled with despair.  This sounds depressingly like our own contemporary political climate, and we are only at the beginning of this process.

What big data, or whatever term it chooses to call itself next because big data sounds as ominous and untrustworthy as big government or big business or anything else of that kind suffering from our version of the mid 20th century malady that led to socialist and fascist monumental architecture, does is to make our world even smaller than it was before.  It does, though, in a way that is decidedly ominous.  A government that can predict its citizens’ political opinions and religious worldviews by their social media likes can engage in behavior to proactively deal with undesirable populations, as can companies.  We already see this in some parts of the world, where in at least one freedom-loving Southeast Asian country liking the wrong post can put one in danger of trials and jail on felony charges.  And to the extent that some of us are fairly open and obvious about where we stand, surely they can make our world oppressively small, namely the size of a jail cell or the cramped quarters of some form of transportation sending us into forced exile.  To be sure, there are many people who are simultaneously hostile to those in authority and also simultaneously careless about leaving a trail that is obvious to everyone else about it.  At some point there will be repercussions for this.

[1] http://motherboard.vice.com/read/big-data-cambridge-analytica-brexit-trump

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/10/21/book-review-big-data/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/08/07/book-review-big-data-work/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/09/01/book-review-dataclysm/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/08/08/book-review-dataism/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/12/03/book-review-the-underground-culinary-tour/

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About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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