March 19, 2013

Big Data prompts big debates at SXSWi

Posted by: in North America

Big Data was one of the driving themes last week in Austin, during the interactive portion of the annual SXSW festival, as marketers, analysts and academics tried to make sense of the sheer amount of data generated each day. And as new data streams join the fray—like Google’s prototype talking shoe, intended to keep the wearer moving—expect things to get weird before we manage to fully make sense of the data revolution.

We’ve been here before, as Nate Silver, New York Times blogger and influential political forecaster, pointed out during his keynote address. Silver likens today’s cheap access to tremendous amounts of information to the period following the invention of the printing press—sudden access to more information led to problems and conflict across Europe. And it took some 330 years for the printing press to affect the standard of living for the masses. In other words, social progress born of information revolutions will not happen overnight.

Silver sees both human and technological arguments against putting great faith in Big Data sets. On the human side, people tend to “cherry pick” facts that match their ideology, and in turn, opinions are becoming more polarized. And with our brains’ limited processing capacity, we often misread “noise” within the data as we try to spot patterns. Silver also warned that because data-based technologies aren’t perfect—to illustrate, he used the example of a trip via Google Maps that went terribly wrong—we should still question oddball results and use our intuition.

On another panel, academics Jen Lowe, an associate research scholar at Columbia University, and Molly Steenson, assistant digital media studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, outlined their concerns about the effects of a data-driven world on individuals. Discussing the well-known New York Times-reported anecdote about Target identifying a teen girl’s pregnancy before her father was aware of it, they pointed to this baby as “patient zero for an algorithmed life.” The infant had hardly formed, yet a corporation was aware of its existence. Lowe and Steenson see this as “a new kind of life” in which identity is “shaped from beginning to end by Big Data.” A child’s “education, health care, career, who she dates, the ads she sees, what she reads, eats, buys will be shaped by a feedback loop of data collected, processed, fed back to her, collected, processed, fed back to her.”

Lowe and Steenson argue that opting out of Big Data is a false choice—an idea we touch on in one of our 10 Trends for 2013, Going Private in Public—since an online presence is usually necessary to advance one’s career. While glitches are needed for evolution, they see a future in which the unexpected happens as a “glitch” in the system.

Big Data calls into question several fundamental ideas tied to how we make everyday decisions and how business functions. There will be a steep learning curve for consumers, as many aren’t comfortable with having their behaviors tracked in minute detail, and we’ve only started examining the issue of protecting those who are ill-equipped or unable to maintain digital obscurity. Meanwhile, a new divide is opening up between the haves and have-nots. For instance, now that the banking industry has starting using unstructured data sets to determine credit worthiness for “risky bets,” these consumers are subject to a more intimate level of scrutiny. One can only imagine this sort of scrutiny becoming more sophisticated and widespread. What rights to privacy are due us all? As we grapple with the new realities of Big Data, these types of conversations are only just a starting point.

Image credit: SXSW

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