Will Big Data Doom or Save Us?

In a new report, the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, asked about a thousand “digital stakeholders” to evaluate how Big Data—the gathering, analysis, and application of enormous amounts of information generated by computers and other technology—will have changed society in 2020. To stimulate conversation, Pew used tension pairs—presenting two scenarios for 2020, one in which Big Data has been primarily a good force that improves lives, one in which it has been primarily detrimental because of invasion of privacy and exploitation by commercial interests.

The result: a lot of nuance and few real predictions—which is a good thing, considering how terrible we are at anticipating the future accurately.

The optimistic scenario for Big Data imagined:

Thanks to many changes, including the building of “the Internet of Things,” human and machine analysis of large data sets will improve social, political, and economic intelligence by 2020. The rise of what is known as “Big Data” will facilitate things like “nowcasting” (real-time “forecasting” of events); the development of “inferential software” that assesses data patterns to project outcomes; and the creation of algorithms for advanced correlations that enable new understanding of the world. Overall, the rise of Big Data is a huge positive for society in nearly all respects.

The pessimistic scenario said:

Thanks to many changes, including the building of “the Internet of Things,” human and machine analysis of Big Data will cause more problems than it solves by 2020. The existence of huge data sets for analysis will engender false confidence in our predictive powers and will lead many to make significant and hurtful mistakes. Moreover, analysis of Big Data will be misused by powerful people and institutions with selfish agendas who manipulate findings to make the case for what they want. And the advent of Big Data has a harmful impact because it serves the majority (at times inaccurately) while diminishing the minority and ignoring important outliers. Overall, the rise of Big Data is a big negative for society in nearly all respects.

Fifty-three percent of the respondents selected the rosier picture, 39 percent the bleaker outlook. But regardless of what option they selected, most articulated that the more reasonable prediction is somewhere in between—a mixture of good and bad.

Below, a snapshot of the experts’ opinions.

The pessimistic

Anonymous: “Data aggregation is growing today for two main purposes: National security apparatus and ever-more-focused marketing (including political) databases. Neither of these are intended for the benefit of individual network users but rather look at users as either potential terrorists or as buyers of goods and services.”

Another anonymous respondent: “Big Data will generate misinformation and will be manipulated by people or institutions to display the findings they want. The general public will not understand the underlying conflicts and will naively trust the output. This is already happening and will only get worse as Big Data continues to evolve.”

The optimistic (relatively speaking)

Jeff Jarvis, journalist and journalism professor at CUNY: “Media and regulators are demonizing Big Data and its supposed threat to privacy. … [But] there is value to be found in this data, value in our newfound publicness. Google’s founders have urged government regulators not to require them to quickly delete searches because, in their patterns and anomalies, they have found the ability to track the outbreak of the flu before health officials could and they believe that by similarly tracking a pandemic, millions of lives could be saved. Demonizing data, big or small, is demonizing knowledge, and that is never wise.”

John Capone, freelance writer: “More information will be beneficial in all sorts of ways we can’t even fathom right now. Namely because we don’t have the data.”

The pragmatic

Anonymous: “Apparently this ‘Internet of Things’ idea is beginning to encourage yet another round of cow-eyed Utopian thinking. Big Data will yield some successes and a lot of failures, and most people will continue merely to muddle along, hoping not to be mugged too frequently by the well-intentioned (or not) entrepreneurs and bureaucrats who delight in trying to use this shiny new toy to fix the world.”

Read more responses in “The Future of Big Data.”