The world of “big data” dawned some years ago, but we have only scratched the surface of its potential uses.
The amount of data now collected from countless electronic devices (not just smartphones, but smart coffeepots) demands an ever-increasing number of analysts to uncover hidden patterns, previously unknown correlations, market trends, and consumer preferences.
But the data sets have grown so large and from such diverse sources (growing at 50% a year and more than doubling every two years) that more than just Internet advertising will grow with it.
Advocates for Big Data envision it as a rich resource for combating poverty, disrupting criminal behavior, and mitigating industrial pollution, as well as discovering breakthrough treatments for the most stubborn diseases, from diabetes to cancer, by discerning the kinds of interrelations that only the biggest data sets can reveal. Meanwhile, privacy advocates naturally worry about government surveillance and whether Big Data is today’s moniker for Big Brother.
But other questions deserve equal, if not more, sustained attention. Human analysts simply can’t keep up with the constant stream of information and are handing over all that data to the algorithms of supercomputers.
Will we soon base public policy decisions (and not just marketing strategies) based on algorithmic codes? How much of our agency and freedom do we wish to surrender to data sets? If medical treatments target majority success rates, what happens to individuals (or whole communities) who fall outside the trend lines?
Can what matters most about human life – storytelling, meaning-making, art-creating, lovemaking – reduce to quantification and squeeze into data structures?
Overall, every technology shift (and Big Data is a big shift) poses a vital question that technological advances leave so little time to ponder: what kind of price do we wish to pay for the potential benefits – and who will pay it?