Big Data is the DNA of Big Brother

December 14, 2014

Big Data” has become a popular term in information technology and business circles, but what is it and what should we think about it?

“Big Data” is often talked about reverently and passionately by its exponents and its supporters. According to them, “big data” can solve a myriad of economic and social problems; it will mean a faster and more efficient digital economy that is responsive to the needs of both consumers and producers.

Industry will love “big data”, we are assured, because it will mean less waste, more targeted advertising, and a better “fit” between knowing what consumers want and the ability to stock retail shelves with the right goods. For service providers, “big data” means easier connections with those seeking their help and expertise.

In short, “big data” is wonderful, it will benefit all of us and there’s nothing to worry about.

If this sounds too good to be true, it’s probably because it’s more than likely we haven’t yet found the hidden fish hooks – the problems and worrying unanswered questions – that might cause us to think twice before jumping into the “cloud” with the “big data” enthusiasts.

So let’s start with a simple definition, an answer to what should be your first question: “What is ‘big data’?”

“Big Data” refers to the vastly expanding mountains of information that can today be gathered and stored on fast-running servers (supercomputers) and in the “cloud”. The “cloud” is another term that needs some discussion in this context because it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Cloud computing and “big data” go hand-in-hand. The “cloud” is a fancy name for off-site storage of data using a network of supercomputers. Several companies are now offering retail cloud services, including Google and Apple’s iCloud.

Big Data is the type of material that can be stored in the cloud and retrieved via the public Internet or over a secured point-to-point private system. Big Data is often associated with the “three Vs” of information architecture – volume, velocity and variety.

Volume is just that – the exponentially growing amount of information that we generate each day through online transactions, social media interactions, emails and files that we send and receive. This represents a business opportunity for some and, to others, a vast trove of secrets to be uncovered.

ibm-big-dataVelocity is about speed – the pace at which new data is created and exchanged in both structured and unstructured ways. Harnessing this speed is also a business opportunity. On the global money-trading market, for example, an advantage of just seconds can mean the difference between a profit and a loss on any one transaction.

Variety is also about complexity as data comes in many forms – some are innately useful (e.g. documents, plans, financial records) while others are less structured (e.g. our tweets and Facebook status updates, our online “likes” and Instagram snaps). However, being able to marry these things together is what “big data” is really all about.

If it is possible to know where I am, who I am connected to via social media, what I like to spend my money on and, more importantly, how much disposable income I have, then my data becomes a marketing goldmine. When all of this is connected to my GPS-enabled smartphone, and my every move can be monitored, I cannot escape the siren call of seductive advertising that is all about “me”. It’s personalised to my tastes and it is designed to empty my virtual wallet quicker than I can refill it at the end of a working week.

So at the heart of “big data” is another important definitional “V” word – “value”. No amount of data is worth more than the bytes it’s assembled from unless you can do something with it. And in terms understood implicitly in a capitalist economy, “doing” something with the mountains of data now stored in the “cloud” means monetising it.

Data is monetised when value can be added and subtracted. By turning data into a commodity it can be priced, bought and sold. In other words, somebody, somewhere will be making money from the data – mine, yours and everyone else’s.

At this point we lose control over our own data; we become the objective of big data and cloud computing, not its subjects. Our data belongs to someone else and what they do with it is entirely up to them.

Did you read the fine print before signing up to Facebook or that new cool app for your phone that allows you to locate the nearest new cool bar? No? I didn’t either, and most of us don’t.

In fact, those who control “big data” would prefer we didn’t read the T&Cs. That’s why they are usually a gazillion pages long in 6-point type, and all the nasty bits are buried so deep in that you’d need a team of lawyers and a million dollars to read and understand them. In short, what you are doing when you lazily click “Agree” is giving away all and any rights now and in perpetuity to the data that you are about to hand over to Faceless Corporation.com. What they then do with your data is none of your business, even though it is all about your business.

Everything that Faceless Corporation.com knows about you and every new bit of information that you share when you use their apps and visit their website is suddenly part of “big data” and it now has value.

When the insignificant tidbits you share on social media are all aggregated, sorted, mashed, crunched and scrunched, the analysts at Faceless Corporation.com know more about you than your grandmother, and perhaps even more than your GP.

This information can then be sliced, diced, interpreted and amplified by new incoming data. It is then packaged up by Faceless Corporation.com to be commodified and on-sold to someone else – let’s say Buy This Junk.com – who will then bombard your inbox or your Facebook or your Twitter feed with advertising for their own products and services. If you, for example, use Buy This Junk.com to order a new widget then within days, if not hours, if not minutes, you will see in your social media feeds advertisements for widget-holders, widget-cleaners, widget reseaters and all kinds of widget-related paraphernalia that you didn’t even know you needed.

But now, at least you know why this is happening: Faceless Corporation.com sold your data to Buy This Junk.com and they, in turn sold your data to the companies that service the wide world of widgets and widget fanciers. Of course this is an endless chain. If you were to buy some widget-cleaning goop from Widgets R’Us.com they will, in due course, also be packaging up data about you and your widget-keeping habits. The next thing you know… well, you get the picture.

My example might seem trivial, but the point I’m making is not. Big Data is about recording, storing, surveilling, quantifying and monetising every aspect of our lives beyond anything we might have imagined even a decade ago. There is literally no place to hide anymore, unless you go completely off the grid.

There is a carrot-and-stick effect associated with “big data” that makes going “off-grid” unattractive, if not almost impossible. If you don’t agree to the T&Cs you don’t get the benefit, the goods or the services. Now it is getting worse because we are moving in the direction of a “cashless society”; everything will be done from smart cards, smartphones or even (if the scientists are right) from implanted biometric chips that store our credit and our identities and that are always on and always scannable. If there is GPS tracking as well then, short of digging out the chip with a scalpel, we can never disappear.

This is the beginning of what I have described as the “surveillance economy” – a capitalist system in which the drive to encapsulate everything within “big data” is the engine driving economic growth and profitability. In a system prone to crisis – as global capitalism inevitably is – “big data” looks to some like a panacea, the golden goose and the fountain of economic youth. Unfortunately, I do not share this utopian view of the surveillance economy and if you can read Robert O’Harrow’s 2005 book No Place to Hide you will begin to understand why.

Control of “big data” is in the hands of global transnational corporations that operate to increase shareholder value, not for the benefit of the public interest. Big Data is being harnessed by these corporations in order to control economic activity now and into the future, and it is being done with the full knowledge, support and encouragement of governments around the world.

logentries-big-data

Perhaps I don’t need to spend much time on this aspect of “big data”. Here in Australia we are now familiar with the Federal government’s recent moves to increase the data surveillance powers of ASIO, ostensibly to keep us safe in a dangerous world filled with terrorist threats. However, perhaps we should be alert to, and alarmed about, new laws that appear to give security agents the ability to monitor the entire internet on the basis of one warrant and to keep information about their spying activities out of the public domain.

Critics of “big data” – in both its commercial and its government guises – argue that we will no longer have any real hope of personal privacy at the same time that secrecy surrounding the actions of corporations and government agencies is increasing. I agree with them.

It’s clear from the documents provided by the brave and vilified whistleblowers, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, that Australia is heavily involved in the so-called “Five Eyes” syndicate of Western powers who are also the leading nations prosecuting yet another war in the Middle East on the pretext of fighting global terrorism. This alliance is led by the US National Security Agency (NSA), which is the world’s leading financier of research into making the collection and storage of “big data” even more efficient.

In fact, there’s another book that you should read that can explain all of this in much more detail than I can in the space left to me here. The book is also called No Place to Hide by American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who worked with Edward Snowden on the release of the NSA’s files last year. What he discovered is quite shocking. The NSA works to the principle of “collect everything” and is in the process of making this slogan a reality. I worry about this and I think you should too.

The alternative to dropping off the grid is to stand up and take back control over your own data. It’s not going to be easy, but we have no choice.

There is no place to hide.

First published in Issues magazine, December 2014

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One tweet does not a revolution make: Technological determinism, media and social change

May 11, 2013

This is my recently published piece on technological determinism and revolution – case study of the Arab Spring.

Reprinted from Global Media Journal

Abstract

This paper discusses the problematic influence of technological determinism in popular news media coverage and analysis of the Arab Spring events of 2010-11.

The purpose is to develop insights into how and why elements of a ‘soft’ technological determinism inflect both journalistic practice and news discourse in relation to the Arab Spring. In particular it discusses how the ‘bias of convenience’ and a journalistic obsession with the ‘continuous present’ connect with this determinist inflection to create a potential distortion in the journalists’ ‘first rough draft’ of history in relation to significant and complex events such as social revolution.

Debates about the significance of social media and communications technologies more broadly in generating mass outbursts of protest and even violence have raged in the popular news media for the past decade at least. A wave of interest in ‘theories’ about how and why new services like Facebook and Twitter may create or enable mass protest was generated by the revolutionary events in Iran following the June 2009 elections (Hirst, 2011). Many of the arguments then and now, in coverage of the Arab Spring, are suggestive of a form of technological determinism that is coupled with other underlying and little-investigated assumptions inherent in most forms of news practice and discourse.

The question of the influence of technological determinism within journalism studies is a far from settled debate and this paper follows Mosco’s argument and suggests that the idea of a social media revolution is a myth of the ‘digital sublime’ (Mosco, 2004). At best social media is a new battleground in the struggle for information control. At worst it can blind activists and commentators to reality (Morozov, 2011).

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A journalist is not a gadget

September 13, 2010

My second installment discussing Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget.

In the future, writing might not be something anymore that is entirely done by humans, and that surely needs to be debated.

Mercedes Bunz

The future is crashing in on the present and we are confronted by a world in which it might be ‘OK’ for robots to replace human reporters (Allen, 2010; Bunz, 2010a). Researchers in the Systems Informatics Lab, at Tokyo University, have built a machine that can ‘autonomously explore its environment and report what it finds’. Using an on-board camera to interview people and a Google search to ‘round out its understanding’, the newsbot ‘will even write a short article and publish it to the web’ (Dawson, 2010). At Northwestern University, in the Intelligent Information Lab, scientists are developing a ‘fully automated’ system for creating broadcast news by aggregating material from online sources to ‘drive a set of animated characters who reside in a virtual “news world”’ (InfoLab, 2010).

I don’t know about you, but I am not ready for this brave ‘news world’. Neither it seems is former cyber-guru turned tocsin Jaron Lanier.

Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget warns against the dehumanizing effects of ubiquitous computing and of relying too heavily on algorithms. His argument is simple: in order to believe that machines are smarter than us we have to dumb-down our own cognitive and reasoning abilities. He argues that the hive mind is the wrong kind of collective thinking and has coined the term ‘digital Maoists’ to describe the evangelists for a disembodied digital ‘brain’ that haunts the Internet.

Lanier believes the digital Maoists are ‘cybernetic totalists’ whose enthusiasm for algorithms and the ‘digital cloud’ betrays an ‘antihuman rhetoric’. He argues that if we are ‘locked in’ to this way of thinking—a form of technological determinism—we will turn into digital peasants: collectivized into stupidity, enthralled and entrapped by meta-data, algorithms and the aggregation of aggregators.

You are not a gadget is a call to action before it’s too late to stop the dehumanizing effects of too much computing. Lanier rejects the fervid ‘religious belief’ in machine-intelligence evident among the cybernetic totalists. He also believes that ‘aesthetics and emotions’ must compete with ‘rational argument’ in order to extend our humanity. I am drawn to Lanier’s unorthodox approaches and to his critique of the ‘techno-political-cultural orthodoxy’ that expanding computational capacity will somehow solve the world’s problems.

I’m all in favour of improving our lives through the intelligent application of technology, but I am reluctant to put my trust entirely in machines when it comes to news and journalism. We must be alert to the dangers of relinquishing control to impenetrable algorithms. To fail is to risk ceding all decision-making power to the digital Maoists: then it might be too late.

Allen, R. (2010, 23 March). Automated Sports Content: The future of sports journalism. StatSheet Retrieved 3 September, 2010, from http://statsheet.com/blog/automated-sports-content-the-future-of-sports-journalism

Bunz, M. (2010a, 30 March). In the US, algorithms are already reporting the news. PDA: The digital content blog Retrieved 1 September, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/mar/30/digital-media-algorithms-reporting-journalism

Dawson, R. (2010, 15 April). The rise of robot journalists. Trends in the Living Networks Retrieved 3 September, 2010, from http://rossdawsonblog.com/weblog/archives/2010/04/the_rise_of_rob.html

InfoLab. (2010, n.d.). News at Seven.   Retrieved 3 september, 2010, from http://infolab.northwestern.edu/projects/news-at-seven/

Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. Melbourne: Penguin.


Journalism and blogging: leave it to the machines?

October 23, 2009

In science and science fiction there’s a moment when it all goes to custard for the human race. It’s the singularity – often defined as the time when machines begin to out think humans.

We’re not there yet and I’m comfortable with predictions that it might happen 200 years after my demise. But you can never really trust futurist predictions.

We’ve already got smart(ish) bots hurtling around the interWebs chewing up data and spitting it out again in a clickable and commercial form, so I’m not too sanguine about what’s gong on in the DARP labs and other murky salons where “mad” scientists and uber-smart geeks tend to gather.

Anyway, there is evidence of not-so-smart machines out there already aggregating, redacting and posting prose that fills the holes between advertising links on some remote outposts of the blogosphere.

Take, for example, Biginfo, the website with the unbeatable cyber-catchline: “All of your info, on one page”.

Isn’t that the holy grail of the Internet? Isn’t this slogan the absolute bottom-line misison statement for Google?

We won’t need humans any more if Biginfo succeeds.

I  know about Biginfo because the site has linked to a post here at Ethical Martini. As you do, I went to check out why the site was linking and pushing some traffic my way.

This is what I found:

What is More Ethical Blogs or News Media?

20 October, 2009 (15:10) | News And Society | By: admin

// your advertisement goes here

We are chance more and more that readers conceive the aggregation contained in Blogs is more trusty than the indicant programme media. (I don’t conceive a candid comparability between the electronic media and Blogs makes such sense, so my comparability is direct: cursive touchable vs. cursive material.) While I encounter this agitate in ‘believability’ to be somewhat surprising, I staleness adjudge that I don’t conceive I personally undergo anybody that reads the production without a nagging distrustfulness and a taste of doubt. Even more, I move to be astonished at the ontogeny sort of grouping I undergo that do not modify pain to feature the newspaper.

The long post goes on in this vein for some depth. Here’s another of my favourite paras:

I module substance digit appearance on the supply of blogs vs. newspapers. A blogger, aforementioned me, is attractive the instance to indite most an supply that I poverty to indite most and that I see passionately about. Question: so, what most the mortal of ethics? Answer: I do not hit a deadline, I hit no application that is biased, and I modify intend to indite my possess headline!

I am willing to believe that this is a machine-translation of something written in another language (possibly Chinese?) by a blogger or someone and that in it’s original iteration it makes great sense. Also, if it had been translated by a moderately proficient human it would probably also be readable and cogent.

Are we redundant? Should we retreat and leave the web to dribblejaws who find it a convenient medium to feed their conspiracy theories and ugly prejudice?

I certainly hope not, continue reading if you’d like to know more about the singularity.

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What can we learn from video gamers that will help journalism?

April 1, 2009

This is a shameless plug!

The Journalism and Society Research Group was recently established by Dr Martin Hirst and colleagues, in the School of Communication at AUT University, to further research and collaboration with industry on issues vital to the health of the news industry and the democratic functioning of the mass media.

The inaugural meeting of the group will take place on Monday 6th April 2009, from 5.30 to 6.30pm followed by drinks at the Brooklyn Bar.

Mass(ive) media: Borrowing from video game research to explore journalism and society Read the rest of this entry »


“Sorry” is indeed the hardest word: Facebook faux pas leads to apology

March 6, 2009

A number of British news organisations have been forced to apologise and pay damages to a woman after wrongly reporting that her daughter’s 16th birthday got out of hand because people turned up to her house after the event was promoted on the girls’ Facebook page.

As Nelson would say: “Ha ha!”

The case was covered in the Guardian a few days ago:

David Price, of London law firm David Price Solicitors and Advocates, told Judge Charles Gray at the high court in London today that Amanda Hudson had been “extremely shocked and distressed” by the false picture that had been painted of her daughter Jodie’s birthday party in Marbella, Spain.

Allegations that the party had got out of hand first appeared across the national and international press in May last year, with claims that the house in Marbella had been “trashed” or “destroyed” by gatecrashers.

However, Price told the high court today that “only very minor damage was caused” and that Jodie had promoted the party on social networking website Bebo – not Facebook. [Oliver Luft, Newspapers sorry for ‘Facebook party’ story]

I’ve been concerned for some time about journalists free and easy use of Facebook as  a source, but it seems that in this case the news media concerned didn’t even do any basic fact-checking. It supports my argument that using Facebook is basically a lazy way to get a story, particularly if you’re just taking stuff from the site, or not checking when someone tells you something was “on Facebook”.

If we’re going to use social networks as a journalistic tool, I think we need to have a much more rigorous debate about it. Not just assume that the technology “can” and therefore we “should”.

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Social networking and the NYT – be careful what you sign-up for

February 3, 2009

Thanks to Poynter Online for posting the New York Times guidelines for reporters using social networking sites as a journalistic tool.

The first guideline is about politics or controversial groups and flagging your own political beliefs

If you have or are getting a Facebook page, leave blank the section that asks about your political views, in accordance with the Ethical Journalism admonition to do nothing that might cast doubt on your or The Times’s political impartiality in reporting the news. Remember that although you might get useful leads by joining a group on one of these sites, it will appear on your page, connoting that you “joined” it — potentially complicated if it is a political group, or a controversial group.

This kind of defeats the purpose of being on Facebook. Surely one of the benefits is being able to “meet” with like-minded people and to share your views. Also, if you don’t join a group, how are you going to find out what its members are thinking and doing?

I think this could lead to problems of another ethical variety — reporters using an alias to join controversial groups and not disclosing that they are working for a news organisation and then using material in the paper or in their journalistic work.

The constraints that the Times puts around its staff use of social networking seem a little overbearing. At the sme time they don’t seem to take into account the real journalistic abuses of Facebook and the other sites.

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