The first big data project commenced in America, in 1937 where the government attempted to record the social security contributions of its 128 million people. Back then, the administration relied on IBM’s industrial sized punch-card machines which later laid the foundation for large-scale automatic record-keeping and modern data analysis.
Since then technology has evolved and so has the term “big data”. On its own, “big data” has no clear definition. To some, big data could be a terabyte size dataset; to others, it could be smaller datasets that fluctuate many times per second.
Big Data: Digital Totalitarian Control
The period when traditional companies could do years of research, collating the various intricate information, to then begin building a product is gone. If applied to current days, the product would be outdated when it hits the market. At the prime digital age where Amazon, Facebook and Google are data kings, innovation starts with the ability of their development teams to understand data at a deep level to a point they can predict the trend of the future. It is not the dataset that is difficult to analyse, it is about having the right tools to build new solutions. Much like the gold rush, big data makes the big bucks and, extending the metaphor, data analytics is the equivalent to mining for gold.
Nowadays, everything from website access logs and click data is being archived and mined to generate valuable insights. Harmlessly, companies with big data analytics allow them to gain insights to reduce costs and outperform competitors. However, researchers believed these behaviour feedback systems can soon allow corporations and governments to influence principles of the economy and society.
Big data having totalitarian control may seem like a fictional dystopia such as George Orwell’s 1984. However, with the rise of fake news and the introduction of a social credit system, the dominance of “big brother” is closer than anticipated.
A series of terrifying articles have depicted big data as the end democracy. They showed how a company called Cambridge Analytica was able to influence both the EU referendum and later the US election, by mining data from social media networks to understand individual personalities, and then personalise advertisement to their psychological profiles.
The discovery has caused significant outcry and controversy but was then quickly shown to have been done with insufficient diligence. However, it has demonstrated the devastating impact data, whether real or fake, can cause and ultimately one should be more vigilant.
There are already concerns raised about who owns, uses and collects big data information from the public. Despite governments and companies promising to be discrete with the information collected, with constant reassurance that the information would not be used by third parties, the reality is very different.
Just last month, regulations that blocked ISPs and internet companies from selling personal private data has been overturned by the US Senate. This has resulted in a near impossibility to protect one’s online privacy and it suggests that parties with undue political power and control can manipulate the general population with their access to information and wealth.
According to Scientific American, schemes incorporating “persuasive computing” already exist with the means to directly control the actions of the public via technology. They are utilised innocently on a large scale by governments to push citizens into healthier and better choices. However, the use for good can always be corrupted by business owners exerting some influence over the information and manipulation tactics.
Since 2014, the People’s Republic of China has been aiming to introduce a “social credit system”, where it keeps data of its citizens ranging from financial creditworthiness to social and political behaviour. This system has been analysed in a previous article and has been in heavily influenced by Chinese-led FinTech firms.
A pilot scheme was deployed in the Jiangsu province: those who scored above the standard were fast-tracked for promotions or jump the queue for public housing. At the moment, about 30 local governments are collecting data plannng to explicitly influence the behaviour of an entire society.
Companies who rely on big data monetize in the form of advertising. Some rely on big data to increase sales (suggesting related products to the ones previously purchased), automating decisions (big data provides proof that an option is correct) and decreasing cost (improving supply chain efficiencies).
The Guardian recently stated companies are so data driven, in today’s hypercapitalism, that they have reduced human customers to a network of commercial relationships. Companies have found ways where not a single individual has escaped their commercial utility. By archiving what has become an influential and critical aspect of the public conversation and public behaviour away from public sight, one can say that free will is inhibited.
The Next Steps
As much as one wants to put the blame on the government and companies, one is actually both victim and perpetrator of big data control. The majority of people voluntarily give up private information and expose themselves to digital networks that allow them to be profiled and influenced.
There are things one have to ask oneself: should one continue to subject oneself to big data control, thus surrendering free will? As an end note, either one controls big data technology or it will end up dominating the world. The potential of big data and big analysis are great but they could be used for society advancements or completely ruin it.