Big Data, Big Deal

We live in the age of information overload. One commentator puts it this way, “besides the need for accidental connections, there’s the fact that some things, clearly, are beyond the wisdom of crowds — sometimes speed and volume should bend to make way for theory and meaning. Sometimes we do still need to quiet down the rancor of mass opinion and ask a few select voices to speak up. And doing so in past generations has never been such a problem as it is for us. They never dealt with such a glut of information or such a horde of folk eager to misrepresent it” (Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection [New York: Current, 2014], pp. 86-87). In my opinion, this is something we experience everywhere we go or watch or listen – television advertisements, conferences, classrooms, and faculty meetings (to name a few) – where we hear about the importance and promise of Big Data, as if it is the answer to solving all of our problems.

I am not a believer in Big Data. It is not that I do not think it does not have some value or that there are instances when we don’t need to preserve it in some usable form. However, I am concerned about how often it is discussed without much regard for privacy or surveillance issues or pursued simply because corporate entities are interested in its use or there are grants that might support research. To a certain extent, Big Data is just the latest digital era buzzword to capture our attention, and, like others, it will pass away (or it should). Big Data seems to be part of an evolving society where machines will be expected to make all of our decisions, from what we eat to what we read or what we are expected to like in fashion and art. To me, this seems both boring and dangerous.

I am not alone. Sven Birkerts, a well-known commentator on reading and technology issues in our time, provides a few words of caution in his latest book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2015). In this collection of recently published essays, ranging over a wide range of subjects, Birkerts tackles the focus on data, noting that “though we live in the so-called information age, very little of what now impinges on us is really information. It is data” (p. 7). And data has become a kind of scripture in a new religious system: “We believe we are held inside a data field, cradled there as if in God’s hand. We trust the machine to give us the answer, the result, the path – for that is why we have invented it” (p. 56). If we can’t measure something or capture it digitally, it can’t be important. And there seems to be little room for skeptics about any of this: “One starts to detect a feeling of data triumphalism in the air, as if it has been formally established that only the quantifiable need apply” (p. 85). It seems to be a worship of the machine. And skeptics about any of this, are not often welcome.

It is difficult to discuss such matters when one teaches in an Information School, even though an iSchool by design is intended to accommodate all perspectives about information and its study (it doesn’t always seem that way). However, from my vantage, I believe it is essential that we educate future information professionals, from programmers and information systems managers to librarians and archivists, to understand the full range of implications – ethical, social, economic, political – of what we now glibly call Big Data. When we see new books on the wonders of Big Data in every conceivable section of bookstores, it is time to ask questions. Fortunately, there are individuals like Sven Birkerts who are doing this.

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