The air in the industry is electric with talks about Big Data. The power wielded by big data applications is spoken of with the same sense of awe as our ancestors would speak of the oracles of Greece – magical beings that predict the future; or of the djinns of central Asia, powerful constructs at your disposal, granting wishes. Even among those with a technical background, the smaller details of big data are murky to most. Technical concepts like HDFS, MapReduce are inherently quite difficult to grasp, even when you work with them.
The bigger idea behind big data, however, seems to be clear to most – that there exists a large ocean of information, upon which we conduct some form of analysis, which is then used to draw insights on human behaviour. This idea of “more data equals more inference” is a well-understood one.
Today, big data is a specific technical term, implying the use of certain technology. As the use of big data becomes more prevalent in all sectors of industry, we’re bound to see more references to it in the popular culture. However, in its basic form, we’ve known big data in our culture for a while.
What do people think about Big Data right now?
Big data applications are all around us, and people are mostly sold on the utility value of big data for their business affairs. But there’s a flipside. Say the words big data to a person not exposed to the technical details of it, and it’s quite likely that the conversation will drift into visions of a dystopian future, people controlled and shackled by the machinations of corporations and governments, and eventually killer robots. People claim they feel like data points, all their information at the disposal of a few corporations, free to be used to bend your will and fill up their coffers.
Even though all of us use some big data framework or the other, there’s a divide in the perception of the use cases of big data. We often hear scientists declaring that popular culture has not been very kind to big data. This has a grain of truth to it – all forms of popular culture, be it movies, TV shows or books, paint a rather grim picture of the future of the human race in a big data world, and for good reason! Writers of fiction, often times, take up the responsibility of playing out otherwise unimagined scenarios, to warn humans of their activities. The most telling signs of the future are very often found in good art.
Works of dystopia
In any conversation surrounding modern works that describe the pitfalls of big data, the first instance that comes to most minds is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Through the idea of Big Brother, this book gave us a sort of template for the ever-watching eye, tightly controlling people’s actions, thoughts and emotions. 1984 still remains the most common analogy people draw when they’re trying to express their fear of big data. The next most popular one is Terminator, where a military-industrial AI is fed data from every aspect of the US military. This AI attains sentience and immediately decides that humanity must die, giving rise to generations worth of fear. In fact, the community that works around regulation and policy involving big data and AI is well-aware of a curse they fondly refer to as the terminator syndrome. How can you possibly have a meaningful conversation about big data, when all conversations inevitably devolve into a terminator reference?
Science fiction went through a golden age in the 50s and 60s, when the best selling books were all full of optimism for a scientific future. However, American writer Philip K Dick explored the dark side of scientific progress extensively. His stories are exemplary at highlighting nuanced effects of technological development. In the Spielberg adaptation of the Philip K Dick short story, Minority Report, three “pre-cogs” mimic big data analysis to predict crime before it occurs, with the hope of ending all crime. But one disparate prediction from one of the pre-cogs – a “minority prediction” – starts to disrupt this system. The film is a great commentary on how systems meant for generalised predictions inevitably hurt minorities. It is the onus of humanity at large to ensure that the benefits of big data reach out to all people everywhere.
Are there any contemporary instances of this dystopia? The omniscient Machine — and it’s later iteration, Samaritan — perform big data analyses in the TV show Person of Interest, ostensibly to weed out terrorists and nip their plans in the bud, but practically keeping an eye on the entire population of the United States.
This list is not complete without the most popular recent example of this genre, the stunning Netflix show Black Mirror. Many of these episodes tell stories about the need for human validation and demonstrates how easy access to a lot of validation driven by large quantities of data leads to a change in the whole fabric of society.
Through all of these manifestations of big data that put humanity in danger, creative minds address the role of regulation, oversight and democratised access to big data.
Optimism about a big data future
Fortunately, a doomsday scenario is not the only end goal of fiction related to big data. Issac Asimov, a cornerstone of the mid-20th century Golden Age of science fiction, wrote the iconic ‘Foundation’ series. The premise of the series is psychohistory, a field that tries to predict human behaviour based on details of their history. In the book, the inventor of psychohistory, Hari Seldon, conceives some theorems that determine when psychohistory can be effective:
- The population under scrutiny is oblivious to the existence of the science of Psychohistory.
- The time periods dealt with are in the region of 3 generations.
- The population must be in the billions for a statistical probability to have a psychohistorical validity.
One glance at these theorems and you can see how Asimov’s predictions, written in the 50s, have turned into reality today. Prediction of human behaviour on gigantic scales is part of the core business of companies like Google and Facebook.
Why does art focus on dystopian possibilities of big data?
In a nutshell, dystopia is exciting. Everybody loves a good disaster. There is no doubt that big data has made it easier to do business, find insights, build communities. But these phenomena will never be as catchy as a tragedy. Even though everyone understands that more information leads to more insights, the masses are more interested in the pitfall of this idea. In Nolan’s iconic film The Dark Knight, Batman creates a system where he turns every phone in the city into a listening device. In the end, it is revealed that he allows his trusty techie lieutenant Lucius Fox to destroy the whole system. With this move, Batman re-establishes himself as a likeable character – nobody wants to see that degree of control with one person.
It’s not that people don’t inherently trust technology; they just don’t trust the people making and controlling technology. Technology enables more inference from more information, and what you infer depends wholly on the actions of the wielder of the technology. Facebook is a great example. Although most of us wouldn’t refuse a job at Facebook, many believe that the company records our voice as data input for their ads. The Facebook situation makes it amply clear that there is a deep distrust of the methods of data collection. You can see a similar type of reaction to the Aadhar database. Amidst major concerns towards security, a distrust grows towards the infrastructure surrounding the unique ID project.
World politics are at a stage where fear has been weaponised globally, yet again. These visions of a bleak future stemming from big data, only add to this global cult of fear.
What can we do?
Regardless of the concerns voiced from across the world about big data, one thing is certain – we already live in the Age of Big Data. We cannot escape it; it is already all around us. Organisations utilise it in every aspect of the business. Almost all sectors of industry have found some application of big data. In the purview of this reality, there is no place in the world for fear driven by ignorance.
Humans have always feared the unknown. Popular culture, while imitating life as good art does, reflects this fear by creating tangible bad actors. The antidote for this fear is the same one that has helped us through fears through the ages – education. Learning about big data will empower you to know more about the mechanisms of regulation and accountability, checks and balances about big data.