Big Data scares people, but is it all bad?

In an IT context, Big Data is the existence of massive datasets so large that typical relational database tools and structures are inadequate to handle. But in the context of people, Big Data means massive databases on our personal lives: consumer behavior, medical records, internet activity, financial data, phone records, etc.

In science fiction and the media, the mere mention of Big Data is usually followed by oogity-boogity noises about the loss of privacy and the rise of evil puppetmasters. In the fiction world, good guys or bad guys do morally shady things with too much data at their fingertips and bearing scars afterward. (Batman snooping on everyone’s cell phone in The Dark Knight, omniscient data terrorists vs. John McClane in Die Hard 4). If data is like power, the thinking seems to be, a comprehensive database will corrupt absolutely.

The media gets a lot of easy scare mileage by reminding people that their data already exists inside large databases. And once alerted they then imagine the worst data dystopia this side of Orwell. In the real world this has caused noticeable damage: response rates to the decennial Census have dropped, despite it’s Constitutional mandate, and social science surveys are also in trouble. Even a tool to stalk terrorists after 9/11 was killed because of these fears: remember Adm. John Poindexter’s Information Awareness Office? Enhanced interrogation, rendition and a grab bag of other horrors thrived in the post-9/11 period, but this one anti-terrorism piece was killed before it got started.

In SF, putting Big Data in a story almost guarantees that it will be abused. And like a digital Frankenstein creature, that data or its users must be destroyed to protect all that is moral: Lucius Fox types in the password and destroys the system. Given this emerging trope though, can we have a more mature, grounded examination of the effect of Big Data in our lives? It is a given part of our lives, businesses and the web now but hasn’t turned out to be entirely evil. There are positive sides to aggregating personal data, such as discovering and reducing medical errors, improving traffic flow, recommending books or movies that we may like, researching human behavior and the use of technology. Not to mention studying ourselves via survey data to better inform public policy, the business I am in. And all done while still protecting poverty. The show Person of Interest is predicated on a benevolent side use of a shady-but-necessary (perhaps) Total Information Awareness system, but I suspect that the system will be destroyed at some point by someone who believes it is too evil to survive.

Among SF writers, Cory Doctorow deserves special credit for avoiding the Big Data dystopia trope in both his fiction and his nonfiction. He has even made useful and interesting suggestions (YouTube video) about how businesses can help users control their data while offering them better services. At the foundation of all of his work is the assumption that Big Data is already here and can be managed in a way to avoid a panopticon dystopia. Perhaps he is given a pass because of his strong reputation on electronic freedom and privacy.

But can other writers do the same on a story’s own merits? Or will they be blindly painted with the dystopia brush regardless of how they approach Big Data? Have any others ventured into the Big Data space and escaped without being labelled Orwellian?

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2 Responses to Big Data scares people, but is it all bad?

  1. Phil Goetz says:

    Is this attitude really something that can be analyzed independently, or is it just part of a larger fearful attitude towards technology, science, scientists, and perhaps even reason?

  2. Mark Sarney says:

    Hi Phil! That’s a good question. It is probably both something that is part of a larger fear but it does have a flavor of its own. It seems like those most comfortable with science, reason and tech are some of the most freaked out by Big Data.

    Big Data includes a person’s private information, and it can constitute an entirely different kind of threat. It can be Orwellian and that freaks people out. It can be subtle, as opposed to whizbang tech gadgets. It can be turned against us without us knowing, unlike science in general or technology in particular.

    The problems with stolen identity probably seem like a small tip of an ominous iceberg compared to say, cloning, which wouldn’t harm anyone directly. Big Data is like nuclear power: a powerful tool that isn’t going away, but when it is used for ill, or when there is an accident, the damage is lethal and invisible and hard to contain. Ooh, I think I may have a new analogy on my hands.

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