Article – Living in a Data-Driven Society

Photo from Pexels
Photo from Pexels

I was not enamored of my current lineup of planned posts, so today I’m going off schedule and I found an article and a topic that interests me greatly.  I don’t know if I ever mentioned it here, but I was a statistics major in college.  In the process of taking my introductory statistics course, I was enamored of what statistics could tell us and the amazing things you could do with relatively simple math, if only you had the data to interpret.

These days, it seems that data is everywhere, and driving everything.  The article that prompted me to write was this one from the Atlantic about how we are living in an “extreme meritocracy” – that is one that one that is “unrelenting, unforgiving[ly precise],” and makes value judgments about our lives and what we deserve based on how we measure up.  If we are good enough according to the model based on our data, we will “deserve” to rise up.

But is that a good thing?  I don’t know.  The idea of big data seems to be driving a lot of the business and technology that is coming out – Uber knows how much to charge you based on demand for cars.  If the demand is high, the price goes up, and sometimes at times when a person with a conscious would not make the same business-minded decision (although Uber has faced push-back regarding it’s surge pricing that leads to things like charitable donations as part of the price).  It leads to more private customer information that is available to be hacked because companies are trying to make it easier to reach out to customers and tempt us to buy more stuff.  But that means storing more information about us, which makes them prime targets for hackers trying to get credit card numbers or information that would help in identity theft.  Decision making algorithms are being used to decide who gets into college, and how much they will have to pay for the privilege to attend.  They are deciding who gets hired, and then who gets fired.  And if this is all starting to sound too much like that book I read earlier this summer (The Circle)…there’s a reason for that.

Relying on big data for major life decisions seems dangerous to me.  Cathy O’Neil, the data scientist whose book “Weapons of Math Destruction” is being quoted in quite a few of these articles says that “Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.”  What this means is that while we think that by putting so many of these big deal decisions into a data-driven algorithm to take away bias, we are merely formalizing stereotypes and perceptions that will make it harder for those on the lower end of society to achieve and move up in the future.

I think I’ve written myself into a rabbit-hole.  I know if I keep reading articles that are linked within each of these, I will waste an entire day.  And based on that first Atlantic article, that will drive down my productivity numbers which are currently so important to my boss and my boss’s boss.  So I’ll stop here and throw it out to you my three readers – what do you think?  Where are the places you’ve encountered big data intruding into your life in an unwelcoming or surprising way?  Do you think there’s any going back?  Is it possible?  Would we want to?  Is there any way to reign in what’s happening, or is it all just a slippery slope from here?

2 Comment

  1. Nicole Holstein says: Reply

    What constitutes “Big Data?” Is the information from the Census, which is so commonly used to make urban planning decisions and judgements about environmental and social justice considered “Big Data?” I am predisposed to feel positively about that kind of application of Big Data, if so.
    On the other hand, I hate the attempt at “targeted ads” that websites do. I was thoroughly creeped out once when I sent an email containing a certain word that I don’t often use and then immediately started seeing ads all over my facebook and other webpages about that word. That felt intrusive.
    However, I just read an article on Medium this morning about Google Assistant, their new natural speech recognition software. The data that is being harvested from Google users in some ways is being fed to the neural network, allowing Google Assistant to learn. How they envision Assistant functioning in our lives in a couple years’ time is amazing, and I am personally very excited about that. So…like all technology, it is a mixed bag, inherently valueless and amoral.

    1. maggie says: Reply

      Oh, the Census is definitely big data. I think it’s just that recently it has become obvious that there are more ways that big data is being used to trample people down instead of allowing a meritocracy the way that it theoretically is supposed to work.

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