The Temptations of Big Data
Co-Sponsor: Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB)
“Data tells the story of our life, of our real behavior,” said Hofmann, from the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and the newly founded Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin. Private and state organizations collect the digital trails consumers leave behind to profile users. Companies, such as Netflix or Amazon, use Big Data to provide customers with targeted suggestions based on their respective interests.
According to Porway, Big Data can and should do more, as it provides the opportunity to solve profound challenges on a local and global scale. Locally, for instance, Big Data can assist in finding storm preparation solutions. Globally, Big Data insights can help alleviate challenges, such as determining ways to reduce poverty. Social organizations which address these problems, however, are often not adept at using Big Data. Porway’s company, Datakind™, therefore, provides Big Data expertise to non-profit organizations to teach them effective data application. Porway’s idea is to offer data scientists the opportunity to have a social impact, while giving social organizations the opportunity to maximize their impact. “In that way,” he said, “we don’t just use data to make better decisions about what kind of movie we want to see, but we also use data to make decisions about what kind of world we want to see.”
Commercial and non-commercial organizations also use Big Data to predict future consumer behavior. “Such thinking,” remarks Hofmann, “treats people rather like machines than individuals with a choice.” This can lead to premature conclusions about an individual’s future behavior or actions, such as predicting whether a person is likely to repay a loan or participate in criminal activity. According to Hofmann, these data-generated predictions neglect the individual’s capacity for self-determination and free will and, as a result, blur guilt with probability. Additionally, in a situation of constant observation where, for instance, network providers record when, where, and with whom one speaks, people tend to adapt their behavior to the mainstream. The effects of this behavior could negatively affect a society’s level of innovation, said Hofmann. “We risk losing social diversity,” she said, “diversity we otherwise appreciate.”
Big Data usage raises privacy and data protection issues that can have a direct impact on the freedom of speech and political expression, Hofmann warned. It is unclear whether predictions based on Big Data insights can be accurate and influence peoples’ behavior. Industrial society was successful because humans learned to limit its speed and tame its development. “It could be that we have to think of digital societies in similar terms in order to prevent it from doing things that we individually, but also as a collective, don’t want,” she concluded. As a result, the “sexiest job in the 21st century,” the data scientist, offers enormous opportunities, but also great ethical and legal challenges.