The Allure of Big Data

Photo Jannis Kallinikos / Professor of Information Systems, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) / November 16th, 2012

A vivid public interest has recently arisen over the issue of Big Data and its social and economic implications. Statesmen and politicians, economists, businessmen, activists, scientists, even artists declare the timely nature and relevance of the phenomenon. Is there anything of real importance, beyond the obvious buzz? And why now at this historical moment? The answer most probably lies in the distinct habitat of the contemporary digital communicative ecosystem of which the Internet is an important part and the data availability it affords.

Tons of data are produced and stored everyday in this vast and expanding digital universe, haphazardly (social networks and communities) or by default (logs, CCTV). Such data constitutes a use-agnostic, as it were, data mass that can be a posteriori processed and deployed to new purposes and uses. Other regions of the digital ecosystem exemplify a more systematic approach, whereby the recording and storage of data develop along premeditated paths (financial or health records, online surveys). Advances in hardware and mostly software have enabled the elaboration and massive reuse of such data in ways that have not been possible before. Available data can be retrieved, mined, recycled, combined with other data, aggregated across data repositories and institutional boundaries and repackaged to generate answers or services needed or valued by people, businesses and institutions.

A straightforward outcome of all these developments is the ability to assemble the big picture of many a phenomena by means of meticulous data recording and aggregation of data sources. This applies to such diverse contemporary challenges as those raised by the monitoring of big cities to environmental, financial and health issues. These are by no means meagre accomplishments. But there is more to Big Data than just the assembly of the big picture. In offering powerful means for comparing, juxtaposing or otherwise relating different data sources, Big Data contributes to lifting, as it were, the veil of reality. Insurance premiums, for example, can systematically be associated with life styles, demographic information and other personal data, and better geared to individual conditions and states. The same holds true for data on weather conditions, soil maps and land yields bearing on crops strategies or for GPS information made relevant for crime, tourism or traffic. Examples abound in nearly every walk of life. Like binocular vision, the comparison or association of different data sources lends perspective and depth to analytic perception. In other cases, data mining and profiling offer a deep dive into reality and its underlying mechanisms. All these instances help render visible much of what was before either poorly understood or frankly overlooked. Breadth and selective use of data reinforce one another. In this sense, Big Data can be drawn upon to enlarge and deepen our understanding of life and reality. It is a distinctive mark of our time that these trends cross the institutional fields in which data have traditionally been amassed and include the trivia of life as well. Through predominantly social media and the devices that make up what is referred to as ubiquitous computing, minute details and practices of everyday living are recorded, stored and ultimately subjected to quantification, mining and analysis.

These are undeniably useful, interesting and relevant developments. But they do not tell the whole story. This functional portrait of Big Data tends to conceal the drift away from long ingrained habits and practices that grant life excitement, grace, simplicity and social relevance. The strength of analytic perception that Big Data affords complexifies life by exponentially multiplying the distinctions upon which human decisions draw and rationalizes the context within which human life unfolds. It also subjects people to the influence of powerful actors in ways that are still beyond adequate understanding and social control or legislation (for example, Tesco or Carrefour dissecting daily or weekly distribution of spending with the view of reinforcing profitable buying habits). These developments disrupt the flow of life. Social concerns and experiences are challenged and occasionally replaced or made irrelevant by the recommendations of an alien rationality, brought about the crunching of Big Data and the law of statistics it embodies. Overall, the massive description of life contexts by recourse to standardized data records made relevant at aggregate or abstract levels inevitably drives social and economic life away from embedded forms of thinking and doing.

To some extent, all these are well known implications of the modern ways of living for which Big Data can scarcely be blamed. Modernity can certainly be understood as the social order in which records, documents, numerical systems, images and techniques of data handling are as important as the industrial goods they help produce and circulate. Aggregate information is vital to economically advanced societies. The critical issue therefore is whether the less conspicuous implications of disembedment outlined above signify a break or drift away from the contours of experience, as these have been shaped by modernity? Most probably yes, if one draws on those perceptive ideas put forward some time ago by writers such as Virilio and Baudrillard, among others, indicating an increasing trend towards virtualization, personalized depersonalization and collective deception. The image of modern man as cosmonaut encased in his capsule and vacillating in the outer space, far from his planet of origin (experience and belongingness), painted by Baudrillard, seems more poignant today than in the eighties (The Ecstasy of Communication).

But there may be other slightly different implications, with troubling prospects, if Big Data is seen as part and parcel of a wider shift that technologizes politics, economy and community life, along similar lines to those suggested relatively recently by Bernard Stiegler. Some people may find such risks overstated and unrealistic. It is quite probable that many expectations or fears currently tied to Big Data will fade away as the buzz declines and the phenomenon gets assimilated to the structures and mechanisms that make up modern societies. This is how illusions often die their slow death. But it is also possible that the developments associated with Big Data will intensify in the future. A glance over the history of writing, literacy and numeracy and the massive implications they have had in shaping modern times seems to reinforce the belief that Big Data is here to stay.

A disconcerting indication of whither Big Data may take us is offered by the current economic crisis and its links with the disembedded forms of information underlying most contemporary financial instruments. The massive and swift diffusion of the information these financial instruments encode reveals the intricacies of validating such information by recourse to reality, convention and other social forms (e.g. trust, rules and laws) of stabilizing the meaning, value and relevance of disembedded tokens. The current economic crisis is, of course, a multivalent phenomenon with many causes and even more diverse implications. But it could also be claimed to be a semiotic crisis, in the sense of a global social order that fails to connect its tokens (money and instruments of financial value) to life and reality. The longstanding links tying money to information are currently exposed by their convergence into electronic forms of value mediation. They are also shown in the multiple links binding information to risk, interest and ultimately value. This semiotics of economics, as it were, makes up a timely yet complex and slippery subject to which I have to return in a forthcoming contribution. Suffices perhaps here to point out that money and records (information) have always been tied together and have historically emerged as key means of managing the production and exchange of goods, a few millennia ago. In some fundamental way, money and financial instruments are semiotic techniques and conventions for describing, representing and, hence, circulating value (Foucault, The Order of Things). Placed in such wider historical purview, money and information appear closely related to one another, granting the disembedment implications associated with Big Data the disconcerting prospect of a vortex in which reality may irretrievably be lost.

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