Stephen E. Arnold: Big Data Stress at Both Ends of the Lens

IO Impotency
Stephen E. Arnold
Stephen E. Arnold

Big Data Stress at Both Ends of the Lens

An interesting article at the New Inquiry looks at the psychological effects of both surveying and being surveyed in the modern, data-driven world. It’s an interesting read, and I urge the curious to check out the whole piece. Writer Kate Crawford begins with ways intelligence agencies use big data and some of the stumbling blocks that come with it: No matter how much information they collect, the picture is incomplete. On the other hand, the more information they stockpile, the easier it is to miss important clues and fail to prevent a crisis. Agencies continue to search for frameworks that will help them put the pieces together faster.

On the other side are private citizens, who feel (because they are) increasingly under observation. With each advance in surveillance tech, people feel more anxious, even if they have nothing to hide. Just the feeling of being watched gives us the heebie jeebies (I believe that’s the technical term). Crawford points to the “normcore” trend as evidence that more and more people just want to blend in to escape notice. Isn’t that kind of sad? She also notes that the trend toward privacy violation is unlikely to slow as long as the big data philosophy, that more data is always better, holds sway.

Crawford concludes:

“If we take these twinned anxieties — those of the surveillers and the surveilled — and push them to their natural extension, we reach an epistemological end point: on one hand, the fear that there can never be enough data, and on the other, the fear that one is standing out in the data. These fears reinforce each other in a feedback loop, becoming stronger with each turn of the ratchet. As people seek more ways to blend in — be it through normcore dressing or hardcore encryption — more intrusive data collection techniques are developed. And yet, this is in many ways the expected conclusion of big data’s neopositivist worldview. As historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison once wrote, all epistemology begins in fear — fear that the world cannot be threaded by reason, fear that memory fades, fear that authority will not be enough.”

Ah yes, fear. It’s effects on society have been widespread from the beginning, of course, but now it has scarier technology to work with. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and which sci-fi plots the path will most resemble.

Cynthia Murrell, July 11, 2014

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See Also:

Big Data @ Phi Beta Iota

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