Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Big Data, Big Fear, Big Potential

Big Data can solve the world's problems, potentially.

--If we know how to feed and house and clothe the masses
--How to cure disease
--How to curb violence
--and so on, at low or no cost

Then we have the tools to bring the vision of global peace into reality.

But Big Data creates scary problems of its own.

--Who defines what the data is? This is the meaning of a thing - like "married couples" -- if same-sex marriage is legal then the data will be different than if only heterosexual couples are recognized.

--Who controls it? Is it the sheriff and his best friend who have access to the database? Are medical records shared with the police and the schools as part of your "Universal ID?"

--Will people be out of a job? When computers collect, process and spit out information sufficient to think for us, where will all the knowledge workers go? How will the resulting inequity of income and wealth affect the population as a whole? Will there be looting?

--Will political dissenters be targeted? Waves of ideology come and go. If I have in the database every vote you have cast, every donation you've made, and I am in power while you oppose me, what will I do to you and your family? Where are the controls?

--Will privacy be possible at all? If not have we lost our freedom altogether?

We don't like to think about scary things and so we either avoid the questions or focus on the technology.

But the governing social structure -- values, norms, controls -- is more important than the sheer geeky pleasure of building a powerful tool and well-designed user interface.

When you align the social and the technological you emerge with a model for progress that takes into account the human factor. Which is the ultimate purpose for building all this in the first place.

On the values side I think most people would agree that basic human rights, human dignity and human physical care should be protected. So there should not be a promotion of inequality so drastic that freedom and opportunity are gone.

As far as norms -- rules of behavior -- it seems we can agree that abuse of power cannot coexist with such a colossal production as a Big Data repository.

Which leads us to social controls. If we are each - individually and as part of social groups - a part of the system as empowered owners then Big Data can work.

In practical terms we will all need access to the data input center, access to the dashboard, recourse to oversee and hold data owners accountable.

Business, government, schools, hospitals, prisons, religious centers, etc. all will need to be a part of it.

As should be the individual as well.

The solution to a problematic system cannot come from within the system itself. We have to face that and get comfortable with the anxiety of trying new solutions till one sticks.

* All opinions my own.