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Big data for the people Time to take back from tech overlords

Issued: 2018-03-14

A small number of companies have become extraordinarily rich by harvesting our data. But that wealth belongs to the many

by Ben Tarnoff

Wed 14 Mar 2018 06.00 EDT Last modified on Wed 14 Mar 2018 06.02 EDT

Google knows you’re pregnant. Spotify knows your favorite throwback jams.

Is this convenient or creepy? It depends. One minute, you’re grateful for the personalized precision of Netflix’s recommendations. The next, you’re nauseated by the personalized precision of a Facebook ad.

Big data has been around for awhile, but our discomfort with it is relatively recent. The election of Donald Trump punctured many powerful fictions, among them the belief in the beneficence of the tech industry. There is now greater public awareness of how a handful of large companies use technology to monitor and manipulate us.

This awareness is a wonderful thing. But if we want to channel the bad feelings swirling around tech into something more enduring, we need to radicalize the conversation. It’s good that more people see a problem where they didn’t before. The next step is showing them that the problem is larger than they think.

Big data is not confined to the cluster of companies that we know, somewhat imprecisely, as the tech industry. Rather, it describes a particular way of acquiring and organizing information that is increasingly indispensable to the economy as a whole. When you think about big data, you shouldn’t just think about Google and Facebook; you should think about manufacturing and retail and logistics and healthcare.

With digitization, capitalism starts to eat reality itself. It begins to consume moments

Understanding big data, then, is crucial for understanding what capitalism currently is and what it is becoming – and how we might transform it.

Rosa Luxemburg once observed that capitalism grows by consuming anything that isn’t capitalist. It eats the world, to adapt Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen’s famous phrase. Historically, this has often involved literal imperialism: a developed country uses force against an undeveloped one in order to extract raw materials, exploit cheap labor, and create markets. With digitization, however, capitalism starts to eat reality itself. It becomes an imperialism of everyday life – it begins to consume moments.

In the classic science-fiction film The Blob, a meteorite lands in a small town carrying an alien amoeba. The amoeba starts expanding, swallowing up people and structures, threatening to envelop the whole town, until the air force swoops in and airlifts it to the Arctic.

Big data will eventually become so big that it devours everything. One way to respond is to try to kill it – to rip out the Blob and dump it in the Arctic. That seems to be what a certain school of technology critics want. Writers such as Franklin Foer denounce digitization as a threat to our essential humanity, while tech industry “refuseniks” warn us about the damaging psychological effects of the technologies they helped create.

This is the path of retreat from the digital, towards the “authentically human” – an idea that’s generally associated with reading more books and having more face-to-face conversations.

The other route is to build a better Blob.

Data is the new oil, says everyone. The analogy has become something of a cliche, widely deployed in media coverage of the digital economy.

But it’s a useful comparison – more useful, in fact, than people realize. Because thinking of data as a resource like oil helps illuminate not only how it functions, but how we might organize it differently.

Big data is extractive. It involves extracting data from various “mines” – Facebook, say, or a connected piece of industrial equipment. This raw material must then be “refined” into potentially valuable knowledge by combining it with other data and analyzing it.

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