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‘A bit of a scam’: why big data isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Alongside the idea that data can be a force of good, Colin Kennedy looks at what is being said about the risks of measuring with big data, how technology can dehumanise us, and the theory that people are hard-wired to follow the path of least resistance.

In a recent interview with Jer Thorp, innovator-In-residence at the Library of Congress in Washington, the data artist expressed concern about the concentration of ‘big data’ – and the direction it was moving – in the hands of a few. This concentration of power is just one of the risks that our romance with big data is exposing us to.

Thorp, who is a guest speaker at Semi-Permanent in Auckland this week, called data-driven advertising a ‘bit of a scam’.

“In our work, we’ve found that when it comes to predicting what we want, none of the advertisers are getting it right,” he said. “I’d like to see big data instead being used to make people’s lives better – to help them make better decisions, and to foster understanding between people.”

Another speaker at Semi-Permanent this year, Dr Kimberly Voll, Senior Technical Designer at Riot Games, told me there is a worry that true to human nature we’ll all just sit back and see where the technology takes us, instead of challenging it to create a better future.

"This is not doom and gloom," says Kimberly. "But I would like to see designers take more responsibility; to be more intentional, rather than just sitting back and accepting the word of, for example, big data, which itself is in very concentrated hands."

These are the voices of people at the coalface of data and technology, and they’re worried. Big data is in the hands of a few oligopolies, which raises questions about the intentions of those conglomerates. While there is some resistance, and murmurs about, for example, companies like Amazon which have busted market after market, perhaps one of the bigger, unseen, dangers is that humans are hard-wired to follow the path of least resistance.

There’s lots of research on the subject, but one of the recent studies done by a team at University College London (UCL) concluded that people tend to see anything challenging as less appealing.

Team leader Dr Nobuhiro Hagura said the research reveals that our brain tricks us into thinking the “low-hanging fruit really is the ripest”.

“We found that not only does the cost to act influence people’s behaviour, but it even changes what we think we see,” he said.

In short, don’t expect much resistance when it comes to sitting back and letting big data take us where it will.

If you’re wondering what harm there could be in that, consider for a moment the power of big data to make decisions for us and to, in effect, de-humanise people. Sounds like a stretch?

American emergency physician, explorer, artists, photographer and National Geographic television host Jeff Gusky told an audience at the Global Speakers Summit in Auckland in February that the world is in a moral crisis caused by the dehumanising scale of technology and the pace of life in modern cities.

In 2014, Gusky discovered an underground site – a sort of underground city – about 160 kilometres north of Arras in France. The tunnels revealed the most World War One inscriptions ever discovered on the Western Front. Accessible through a small hole in a farmer’s field, the tunnels were full of century-old graffiti written by ANZAC soldiers (making the ANZACs the most prolific graffiti artists of the war). Gusky describes it as a small haven of humanity created by Kiwi and Australian soldiers, as mass destruction raged on the surface.

Gusky says, “The inhuman scale of modern life cuts us off from nature, from human nature and from each other.” It was the error humanity made in the lead up to World War 1, and – Gusky believes – we’re at it again.

“The scale of modern life diminishes conscience and the very self-protective instincts that keep us safe from terrorism. We must restore a human scale to our busy lives by learning how to see and adapt to the new frontier of human nature on which we all now live,” Gusky says.

The problem with big data also happens to be the reason for our infatuation with it. Big data reveals patterns on a grand scale. But when we start to see human beings as patterns, they become less human – dehumanised. This is dangerous not only for societies in general, but also for marketers and their customers, and for business leaders and their teams.

In 2014, teacher Sheri Lederman sued the New York State Education Department. Widely regarded by colleagues, superiors and students as an exceptional educator, Lederman’s valued-added modelling (VAM) score labelled her ineffective. Yet her students consistently outperformed state averages. The education department was adamant that the data was right.

In 2016, Lederman won. The New York State Supreme Court ruled that the data was ineffective. The judgement concluded that there was convincing and detailed evidence of VAM bias against teachers at both ends of the spectrum.

A case of people versus big data, and the people won. This time around.

As a journalist, content marketer and speaker, the words I write and speak are always intended to be in the best interests of my audience, and always the stories that have a strong emotional element are the ones that consistently have the most appeal.

Big data has its place and its value. It can be a tremendous force for good, but humanity’s innate laziness, predilection towards selfish gain and blind belief in the numbers, risks distorting the gains we make from big data. At the very least it risks dehumanising how we view each other, even our customers.

People are not statistics. If we really want to connect with people at a human level (to win hearts and minds) we must continue to think in the best interests of our audiences as individual, vulnerable people with very real and important problems, needs and questions – not in terms of what gains might be made from playing our digital games on a mass scale.

Big data cannot tell what’s in the heart. It cannot read emotions.

By all means, measure with big data, but don't lose sight of the personal motivations, concerns, needs and worries of your customers – these are the stories that clicks cannot tell.

In the words of UK artist Morag Myerscough, designer of the Big Bang Data exhibition (Somerset House): “By concentrating on data alone, we ignore the fact that our society can thrive on more disordered mechanisms such as negotiation and debate. Although data can help us understand the world in important new ways, it must always leave room for subjectivity and ambiguity.”

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