The big promise in Big Data lies in the predictability of behaviour. For one thing, once patterns are exposed businesses can exploit them for commercial gain. For your benefit and mine, so we are told.
The idea is simple. If, through analysis, you can isolate information about what I have done a lot of in the past, then you are in a strong position to encourage me to do even more of whatever-it-is in the future. This is information that the person or company who stands to financially benefit from whatever-I-did-a-lot-of wants to know. And will pay for.
The latter point is important because it’s fuelling much of the investment in Big Data solutions. For service providers in many verticals, Big Data is a new (and in challenging market conditions) much-needed revenue stream.
But the real question about Big Data isn’t whether it’s powerful. It’s whether it’s desirable. This is a question no one really seems to be asking or, if they are, they tend be hung on the privacy issue. I don’t think privacy is really the key point.
Amazon provides an example of what I think is important. It demonstrates the sort of use of Big Data Use Case that is much lauded by commentators, who see the website as innovative and good and as a way of shopping that enriches its customer’s lives. But I think it does as much to damage my quality of life as to enhance it.
Amazon software analyses my purchasing habits and recommends books that it thinks I will like based on the patterns it finds. This ensures that I’ll quickly locate books that I have a higher likelihood of enjoying, and I won’t waste time browsing or making purchasing mistakes. It is presumed that these are desirable outcomes. I say “presumed” because no one at Amazon asked me what I thought.
The problem I have is that the rapid location of a product similar to one I’ve enjoyed before removes serendipity – which is not a good thing – from my commercial life. And serendipity yields hugely valuable, unexpected pleasures that I don’t want to miss out on such as wasting time browsing.
Why should I always be in a rush? Why should I always want the right answers immediately? Why is the shortest route between two places the best one? Is quality of life now presumed to be judged only in terms of speed to solution and quantifiable return on investment?
Put another way, have we forgotten that we can learn something when we make the wrong turn instead of the right one? What about the book that caught my eye as I wandered past the shelf on which it sat, stopped randomly, purchased and which then became a seminal experience in my reading life? Big Data assumes that what we’ve done is more important than what we haven’t done, yet. And because it isn’t, far from increasing the quality of my life, it threatens to dumb it down and render it vanilla.
All of this is not to position myself as a Luddite or claim that Big Data is “bad”. It isn’t. On the contrary it may be both highly valuable and, in the right context important. It’s the fact that the word “context” is so often missing from any discussion of Big Data that worries me. The issue of privacy, I think, is a red herring in comparison.
We do need to think about what we will use Big Data software for, the circumstances in which we apply it, what we want it to tell us, and the inherent individuality of those who may be impacted by its use. Remember, like any programme Big Data will fundamentally find things where it’s told to look for them.
All in all, it does not follow that I want my future to be shaped by the usage patterns of my past.