Book Review: The Return of Centralized Powers

Big Data (a revolution that will transform how we live, work and think),
Mayer-Schönberger/Cukier (Houghton Mifflin Harecourt, Boston/N.Y., 2013)

Any review of a book on the topic big data normally starts with numbers. Huge numbers that strike us with awe, typically showing us the ridiculously increasing pace of data gathered and handled by private or public bodies. Well, let´s skip that overused rhetoric entry for once and start off outside my car, when my brother-in-law was seeing my family off from our holiday visit in the countryside in July.

Opening the trunk and squeezing the last bag into the back of our car my brother-in-law looked with slight disgust at the contents, since the mini-vanwas completely and helplessly overloaded with well…our stuff.

“Jesus, its full of junk”, my brother-in-law quipped.

But “junk” is in the eye of the beholder. Even though we could live without most of these items of course, none of it was in fact junk. Even if we did not use half of it during our holiday, everything we had sanely squeezed in was actually for some logical use.

The car was stuffed with items that were actually “functions”. Footballs, sleeping-bags, clothes, tools, spaghetti, gaffer tape and a screwdriver.

And the difference between the reaction of my brother-in-law and the actual truth of our luggage contents is actually at the very heart of the promise of Big data.

The abundance of information on the web is, to most of us at present, perceived as useless or already obsolete junk. But with the tools to analyse and use it, all this information, even the erroneous and scapped bits, is actually potentially very useful data.

The book “Big Data” by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier is a journey into the uses and effects of this buzz-word phenomenon, in an attempt to try to answer where will this will take our society. The advent is timely, of course. We already appear to be half way into this brave new world of big data. Most things we do on the net results in suggestions and ads on what people like, well me, probably will be interested in (buying), judging from the history of our previous behaviour. And companies already have myriads of ways of adapting its services to the consumers by structuring cumulative data.

Mayer-Schönberger/Cukier claim that the big data-phenomenon is an organic continuation of the old enlightenment tradition to systemize and analyze the world in order to draw conclusions, learn and develop better actions based on proven knowledge. However, with the digital era, the numbers at hand are now so huge that it will deeply change society. The dramatic change of scale will lead to a change of essence, write the authors.

Big data is about predictions, based on probabilities. However, big data (the material not the book) is messy in its character, and that will change our analytic methods from ”theories” and causality – to patterns and correlations. Mayer-Schönberger/Cukier suggest the term “datafication” to describe what is presently going on. They distinguish this from digitization, which merely makes information digital. With datafication, digital information also becomes useful for purposes not at hand when data was first recorded. And making data indexable and searchable changes the essence of the knowledge game. This turns data into a valuable natural asset, ready for mining by those who knows how to extract knowledge from the masses of previously recorded actions. The revolution therefore, lies not in the technology, but in the ways we learn to use it.

And it will provide states and companies with ever more accurate tools to get to know people’s behaviour, needs and interests. Another implication is that this will lessen the need for organisational leadership and decision making based on intuition and experience. As Big data perpetrates – or perhaps infests – companies and governments, the decision chains will function more as, well, mere engineering departments. Less creativity and inspiration, more systematization.

The general trends outlined by Mayer-Schönberger/Cukier explain what goes on in the transition to big data with impressive clarity. It also gently sprinkles this theoretical phenomenon with examples, aptly adding concretion to the subject. In spite of this “Big Data”, less than 200 pages long, does not make easy reading, since the topic remains remarkably abstract, particularly regarding its social and political implications.

And precisely the topic of how Big data will affect society, people, relationships and the conditions of our daily lives is where the logic of Mayer-Schönberger/Cukier appears somewhat feeble. Yes, Big data will definitely affect how professional companies and authorities make decisions, but is this not more of a change of professional, statistical tools than a fundamental shift in society? To me, a deeper shift also changes the structures and power balance between people or classes of people.

Will big data spread empowerment through popular access to vast knowledge, or is it in fact a contrary movement to the decentralization that we have so far seen with the advent of internet and social media? One would suspect the latter. Of course the tools are already there, up for grabs for anyone, through impressive free utilities like Google analytics, but their ability to attract a broader spectrum of people to new, different and better founded ways of making decisions seems farfetched. Social media has captured us and changed human communication because of the ability to evoke and channel our feelings, attitudes, opinions and desires. Big data, and the access to statistical clarity carry notably less popular appeal, to say the least. Clearly when it comes to luring the masses into a new field of practice, feelings beats math.

In their book, Mayer-Schönberger/Cukier, do not really delve into the heart issues of what political and social impact big data can have. Big data may also well have some leverage for popular, political, public and alternative movements, but this is a topic the authors, who are firmly entrenched in a commercial, US-based tech culture, do not really seem to tackle. They certainly stress the vast scope of areas affected:“Big data is roaring through all sectors of the economy and all areas of life”, but after all, they fail to prove that Big data – compared to social media interaction or the automobile, will empower individuals in any way comparable to how it will strengthen the potency of corporations and governments.

Mayer-Schönberger/Cukier also outlines the dangers of Big data.

To oversee the uses of data mining, Mayer-Schönberger/Cukier suggest the breeding of “algorithmists” – math savvy people that can guard and restrain unhealthy practices. Not a bad suggestion, it seems, but it can be questioned as it puts more control over the development in the hands of people with a similar background as the data miners themselves, which over time possibly could lead to a develop unsound mining culture hidden in the obscurity of math geekdom reign. Maybe big data calls for inspiration from the traditional newspaper world, with watchdog industry organizations with punitive powers.

It is easy to comply with Mayer-Schönberger/Cukiers conclusions that with big data, big things in society are afoot. And yes, they do cut through the mystery of the big data phenomenon, but do not after all convince me that we face of a dramatically changed perception of society with the advent of big data mining.

How deep the effects of big data will be, and what power they have to disrupt society a way comparable to what internet and social media has done to the media industry and the conditions of spreading news – that remains to be seen. Let’s for the moment just conclude that the merits of privacy and anonymity – a former lure in the 20th century urbanization process –  is not exactly where we are heading.

Paul Frigyes
Journalist, covering issues on new and traditional media