November 13, 2015

The Politics of Big Data

A3 poster for the public forum[3]

I am very excited to be participating in an exciting conversation that public intellectual Fleur Johns is organizing at the University of New South Wales on the politics of big data.

If you are in Sydney, please join us! Information is here.

Here are some points I hope to bring to this discussion:

-The turn to big data reflects in part a crisis in expertise: government officials, business executives and even consumers and citizens have lost confidence in their own ability to choose, to plan, to predict the future or interpret the past. Big data steps in not simply to answer questions but to define the questions of our time. If a financial regulator fears that she does not know where the next crisis is coming from, real time data trolling might offer a reassuring hope that the key patterns, questions and proposals will emerge from the data itself.  If a student is not sure what college to attend, he may it reassuring to rely on the wisdom of the crowd as to which college is “hot” in any particular year. As such the big data phenomenon has larger consequences as a modality of governance given that individual sovereignty and the power to choose have been touchstone principles of liberal democracies and market economies.  These larger consequences are quite apart from the political questions surrounding privacy and surveillance that have dominated public discussions of big data.
-Intellectuals and citizens need a response to this new political phenomenon that goes beyond critique.  First, critique is always after the fact, behind the news cycle. By the time we learn of possible problems with data collection activities of private and public actors the activity has long moved on to other areas.  But more importantly, the devices and practices surrounding data collection are here to stay, and are transforming what it means to be a citizen, and indeed to be a person, in profound ways, with consequences that go beyond what any of us can fully understand or imagine at this moment.  What we need to do first is to take stock of these larger transformations (I understand this to be a goal of the conference).  Second, we need to learn from the big data movement in one respect—to recognize that the “genius” of our time is a collective genius, not an individual one—and hence that ours is a moment in which we need to create structures, platforms, experiences, collectivities that together can think the as yet unthinkable. In other words the ambition behind big data is not altogether to be rejected.  The question is how else we might achieve that ambition.



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