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Book Review: 'Big Data'

Miles Winston |
March 10, 2013 | 7:02 p.m. PDT


"Big data" is big news in our technology-driven world (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
"Big data" is big news in our technology-driven world (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
"Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think" by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier is vast, or rather its subject matter is vast. Regarding strictly literary considerations, the writing is rather dull. It even managed to make a somewhat interesting topic less interesting. I can’t really justify that; the chapters were organized, the language was simple, and there are only 197 pages. I must be losing patience.

“Big data” refers to growing technological capacities for processing tremendous amounts of data. This computer-processed data can in turn reveal surprising insights that can inform decision-makers of all kinds. The authors love to refer to Google. The first example mentioned is how Google was able to track the spread of the H1N1 virus in real time…by measuring how many people submitted flu-related search queries.

As I mentioned above, this subject is vast, and one book can’t really do it justice. I think that any discussions on information technology is significantly complicated by the fact that these digital advances are so numerous, so recent, and yet still so rapidly evolving. Contemporary society, with its entrenched social and legal standards for individual and collective behaviors, is trying with difficulty to keep the pace of technological innovation and the vast troves of information it is producing. You could call this an information revolution. The authors often compare big data to the invention of the printing press five hundred years ago, and I find that appropriate. Both facilitate the access to and dissemination of information on an immeasurable scale.

I think this comparison is also useful for shaping the discussion of how the use and accessibility of data ought to be governed. Personal privacy is immediately threatened with an increased ability to collect data and track an individual’s actions or preferences without mutual agreement. Of course, it is true that individuals ought to be clearly notified of this. However, it is only reasonable to suggest that with the opportunities that arrive with emerging technology, there also is a responsibility for the consumers to be held and to hold themselves accountable for how they use this technology. It isn’t as if the digital world is a world apart; I believe that the implications of this world are undervalued in terms of their tangible effects, and this is in part the reason for arguments emphasizing personal privacy rights, rather than personal accountability for virtual behaviors. Entrepreneurships, computer scientists, and statisticians have begun to realize how the data-processing technology is able to translate virtual phenomena (searches, clicks, likes) and real-world data into metrics for gauging consumer preferences, tracking the spread of the flu, predicting criminal activity. It is time that consumers realize this also.

This is where the printing press may serve as an example. What made the printing press unique is that it allowed for the cheap production of written material. Populations needed to become literate for this technology to reach its potential. They needed to be able to record their own thoughts, observations, and studies, as well as to read the work of others that may support or challenge their own thinking. People need to become computer-literate. They must understand for themselves the implications of the evolving technology, not only as it facilitates their consumption, but as it is able to inform their civic duties as responsible citizens.

Code.org is an example of a strong intellectual movement in this direction. With endorsements from Eric Cantor, Enrique Iglesias, Meg Whitman, and many more successful and diverse individuals, this organization is dedicated to increasing the availability of computer programming education, particularly to grade school students. A noteworthy quote, among many: “In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: program, or be programmed,” says author Douglas Rushkoff.

Big data is becoming the catalyst for such a significant revolution in the way individuals, firms, and governments access and process information, it’s hard to give it due treatment. Data is becoming easier to collect, whether by advanced technology or simple research. For me, the prospects of collaborative online learning in particular, with websites like edX.org are truly exciting opportunities. Data truly ought to fuel a popular informational revolution of sorts, just as the printing press allowed. 

All this having been said, read this book, at least to have a sense of what technology is becoming and what we are doing with it. An abundance of opportunities remain not only for entrepreneurs and moneymakers, but also for civic advocates, scholars, and any other agents of real societal change.

Reach Contributor Miles here.



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