Review on Big Data Debate: Big data destroys what means to be human

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.


  1. Big Data Debate, Cambridge Union. Nov, 2018.
  2. Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld, Terms of service: understanding our role in the world of big data. Oct. 30, 2014.

IBM Design Thinking Workshop Report

On Oct. 4, 2019, I attended a Design Thinking Workshop held by IBM CIO Design and Pratt Institute for Pratt students. The purpose of this workshop was to introduce the concepts of Design Thinking and conducting some applications on user experience(UX) design.

8 Facilitators from IBM CIO team in this event: Chelsea Calhoun (Content Designer), Dana Chang (Manager), Kelly McGowan (Visual Designer), Shannon Andrea (UX/UI Designer), Soo Yun Kim( Visual/UX Designer), Veronica Moyer (Visual Designer), Youn Lee (UX Designer).

Soo Yun Kim was the principal lecturer, and she started with an ice-breaking activity: attenders were asked to design an alarm clock in 3 minutes and displayed and introduced their works. In the second task, attenders were asked to design an alarm clock for waking people in the morning. This time, when people talked about their designs, they were more confident and spoke with more logic reasoning. This event led us to think about how to design and who we design for, which inspired more innovative outcomes.

 Discussed the definition of design with attenders, she declared that design was a discipline that required education, work, and practice to reach proficiency, demanded clarity of vision, blended science, and arts, entailed iteration with real users, and thrived with collaboration. After introducing the IBM company, she illustrated their CIO Mission, “We Make Work Better”: leading with design to drive simplicity and ease of use, engineering the systems that run the business, and innovating to transform the business. Design thinking was the key for them to achieve the mission. She elaborated that design thinking was a framework for approaching problems through collaborative activities. It required a focus on user outcomes, diverse and empowered teams, and restless reinvention. As they mentioned, these principles could guide them to see problems and solutions as an ongoing conversation. The interesting part of these principles was that they use an “infinite” symbol to represent a model Loop, a continuous cycle of observing, reflecting, and making. Repeating this process could help the design team to think about any design problem in multi-direction and through periods.

Design and develop process is always dynamic since the information in this world is transient, and people change their needs every second. Still, the design is key to people’s collective liberation, but most design processes today reproduce inequalities on the matrix of domination. Therefore, the idea of design thinking to collect diversity and repeat the Loop cycle with more participants with intersectionality involved could definitely empower the community, not merely on one single product.

The next part of the workshop was to let attenders practice design thinking through a task. We were offered with the problem to solve with design thinking, “Design a better way for students to find the right classes and professors”. Before we found a partner to start interviewing each other about our experience in choosing classes, we were offered several interview tips

  • Don’t suggest answers to your questions, 
  • Don’s be afraid of silence, 
  • Be aware of nonverbal cues, 
  • Stay on the same path of a question, 
  • Ask “WHY”. 

Those tips extracted from abundant field research experiences with ethics and techniques are very important. To get valuable results from research and interview, it’s essential to concern about the formation, conduct, and communication. Developing the proposal and conducting suitable behaviors are the foundations to build trust with and receive proper feedback from the interviewees.

For the interview, we ideated interview questions, paired up with another person, and interviewed each other in 15 mins. With the interviewing results we got, all attenders were separated into six groups. Each group got one IBM facilitator to help with building up the solution, and our group worked out the procedure with Kelly. First, we needed the empathy map to gather the ideas from the interview into four sections: say, think, does, and feels. During this process, the lecturer explained what made a good empathy map:

  • It is based on real research, 
  • It explores multiple user dimensions, 
  • It is verified with users or even co-created with them, 
  • It captures both the positive and the negative.

Based on those guidelines, we noted the top pain points on sticky notes and placed them on board. Then group the similar ones, we found some big ideas, the main concern, and pain points.  Next, we used the green and pink dot stickers to vote the most valuable and feasible one. To sort out the solution for that big idea, every group needed to discuss a scenario and storyboard it. Finally, each group should make a presentation to show the result. Our group focused on the pain point that new students hardly had access to class feedbacks from the fellow students, the big idea our group valued most, and made a storyboard of how a new student forum could help through Q&A, while other groups with their big ideas offered solutions like visualizing more professor information and providing the class syllabus and requirements more directly.

This workshop was short for students to finish all the steps and run out a solution, but it gave us an overall idea of how to use design thinking in the application. At the end of this 3-hour workshop, there was the question period. Dana Chang, the design manager reasserted the importance of design thinking not only in design but all through the industry. Also, she talked about the shift of the methods and techniques of research, design and develop, and the excellence of using qualitative research and quantitive research cooperating together with the addition of the new schism based on design thinking. Although those design methods are innovated through time, design thinking is always important. Other designers also shared their experiences in this design industry, and many of them had changed their positions once or twice. It seems that this industry is really dynamic and exuberant, and people are always willing to adjust to new challenges.

Through this workshop, I could understand design thinking in the context of fundamental principles of research, which collects the true needs of the target users. The research is a vital process to learn a certain topic you are working on, both in general and in detail. How to get the information now and in the long run is a problem that leads to the request of ethical jobs. Showing respect, asking for consents, and building trust should be assured if researchers want to protect an interview-friendly environment for both interviewees and interviewers.


  2. Costanza-Chock Sasha, “Design Justice: towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice”, 2017.
  3. PERCS, The Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies, “The Ethics of Fieldwork”.