I watched a Big Data Debate held by the Cambridge Union posted on November 16, 2018, through its Youtube channel. The topic was “big data destroys what means to be human”. This 3V3 debate was very informative and offered me an excellent opportunity to hear the voices from people in different academic or industrial fields about how they think about the pros and cons of the big data and effects on the humanities.
On the proposition side, Jeremy Pitt, the professor of intelligent and self-organizing systems at Imperial College, gave a constructive speech, pointing out that big data facilitated lots of design choices to destroy things what meant to be human. Collecting and analyzing real-time data from people, the big companies would asymmetrically control the means of social coordination, peer production, and digital innovation with little public accountability and transparency. Therefore, it would lead to a global monopoly of just a few players and a few platforms dominating each aspect of social and commercial life. He asserted that in this way, big data destroyed humanities both collectively and individually. Surveillance capitalism emerged and reduced the opportunities for successful collective actions. For individuals, big data diminished human’s ability to create narratives, generate ideas and have unmodified emotions through the algorithms.
Pitt’s speech had many solid points on the current situation, the trend of using big data, and many threats under the emergence of big data. As the first speaker, he lay the foundation for the whole debate on this big data topic. His speech also reminded me of Keller and Neufeld’s book, “Terms of service: understanding our role in the world of big data”, which narrated a world profoundly influenced by the big data. If people shared their data and lived permanently on the grid, they would lose the right to tell their own story. It is terrifying to me, because when everyone in the world agrees to live in a world that uses data to define people, I will have no choice to be a human I want to be.
However, Harry Ellison-Wright, the third-year student from Claire College, disagreed that big data would drive us to that world. He declared that big data would not destroy what meant to be human, but showed people what it meant to be human. Moreover, there were lots of beneficial example of using big data, such as cavendish laboratory, invented vaccinations to save thousands of lives. Even though someone used big data to quantify human’s greed, lust, envy, prejudice, addictions, and darkest secrets, big data actually demonstrated people’s shortcomings and deepened people’s understanding of themselves.
Then, Angus Groom from the proposition side who had a background in economics at Trinity College pointed out that something human owned for a very long time but now under the threats of big data, such as relying on our brains. Then he reemphasized that using computers instead of brains would finally treat privacy, power, and politics. To against Angus, Vesselin Popov, who studied human online behavior and psychological assessment in Cambridge, declared that we need to use big data and also employ precautionary principles. The problems the proposition side accused onto the big data actually were caused by the lack of education, the ability to scrutinize the monopolies, and the regulations on the big institutions to exploit people’s vulnerability. Vesselin claimed that big data did not take away our opportunities to make collective actions. Moreover, e-voting platforms even brought political power to people at a lower level or grassroots level, not only the elites.
After the floor speech provided various examples against each other, Joy Jia, a law student at Queen’s College, and Ken Cukier, a technology editor, had a final round. Joy strongly asserted big data could not be separated from its uses, and big data was valuable did not mean it was harmless. When big data offered people convenience, it also destroyed many vital parts in humanity, especially the emotion. Taking out the emotion out of the decision-making process, the existence of big data impeded human to self-determine, which harmed humanity fundamentally. In contrast, Ken stood for big data was, in fact, a product of our humanity and facilitated us to see further, learn the patterns of the world, and save the world. Also, he disagreed that big data made the power concentrated, because we lived in a world that everything was becoming concentrated.
This debate ended, but the discussion on big data still exists. When we think about the opportunities and challenges from big data historically and broadly, we can find big data is just another turning point in human evolution that our lives have changed dramatically. I agree that “humanity” will develop with social movements. How people behave and think is primarily depended on our resources and limitations. We cannot deny that we are so limited that we need technology to help us live in this world, and big data is one of the most powerful ones that human created to empower ourselves and improve our society. Also, I admit that any superpower can induce the dark sides of human nature, but people should never give up the chance to make the world better because of the potential risks. What we should do is not blaming how big data destroy what means to be human, but finding solutions to protect our humanity.
One floor speaker raised the example of the gun debate, whether it’s the guns that kill people or people kill people. I think this example can lead us to a solution that we should set regulations and make laws on big data issues, just as what we did for the gun. Specifically, to relieve people’s most worrying about the privacy, biased data, and asymmetric control of big companies, one possible solution could be increasing the data transparency that people can decide whether they want their data to be used and learn how their data are used. In my perspective, the most fundamental humanity that can not be destroyed is the freedom to know and choose. In this case, big data technology needs to be encouraged to make more contributions.
- Big Data Debate, Cambridge Union. Nov, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3Uw1iu6xaA.
- Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld, Terms of service: understanding our role in the world of big data. Oct. 30, 2014. http://projects.aljazeera.com/2014/terms-of-service/#1.