Culture is future » Innovation and digital


Contribution: "Big data’s greatness and fantasy" by Paul Vacca (1/3)

With the emergence of big data, the magical thinking made a powerful comeback. Key to a utopian world for some people, it is for other ones the promise for an Orwellian future. However, both opposed sides agree on the same dogma: big data is going to take possession of reality. Yet it seems that reality is resisting. What if the mighty-power fantasies related to big data were mostly an illusion made up of dollars and myths? Here is a three-step deconstruction.

1. The all-mighty big data and the come-back of the magical thinking
2. Big data to the test of reality
3. Dollars and myths

1. The all-mighty big data and the come-back of the magical thinking

In the beginning was the data. For centuries, it developed progressively and continuously on the Earth’s surface in an analogue mode. Then came the digital and the Internet. As the power of computers doubed every two years for fifty years – according to the famous Moore Law, the quantity of data too, skyrocketed exponentially. With the smartphone, the Internet of things and the quantified self, the connected objects and beings – hyperconnected – started to broadcast their own data. And the last move, act or mood became a data. The multiplication then turned into a big bang. An expansion in the total amount of data in which 90% of the data produced since the beginning of the history of mankind was produced during the last two years.

This is how data became big data.

Magical thinking, the come back

There is no doubt that the production of more data can offer us a better knowledge of our world; that it is a good thing for the progress of science and medicine; that it supplies the development of artificial intelligence or smart cities. Knowledge and science have always progressed thanks to the outbreak of new data and new crossovers.

But with big data, as if intoxicated by the torrent of data, we rapidly move from science to science-fiction. Magical thinking, the come-back. Guided by a digital animism, some have been quick to attribute infinite powers to this infinite production of data. In their eyes, the mass of data become some an influential all-might power. Some – the owners of clouds, the start-ups, the Internet giants, the NSA, etc. – to venerate it they would proliferate symposiums, conferences or on the social networks, boasting the radiant and thriving future that big data promises to worship it; others – hackers, libertarians, Luddites, etc. – would raise it as an absolute threat that the humanity should fear. That is because big data achieves the feat to gather both sides with totally opposed doxa around the same dogma: the belief in its mighty-power.

The mighty-power fantasies

Its alleged mighty-power is first omniscience. As we are now capable of having access to any data at any time, we can thus know everything. This capacity to see and know everything thanks to the collection of data is called data-panopticon. This “omniscience” on big data was even theorized in 2008 by the magazine Wired in an article entitled “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete”. In this article-manifesto, Chris Anderson claimed that the torrent of data would hit the scientific method with obsolescence. Indeed, why seek to understand reality with necessarily hazardous hypotheses now that reality can be delivered in its entirety thanks to data? According to him, the torrent of data allows us to access to a complete knowledge of reality without bothering with science. Big data is omniscience without science.

It is also supposed to open us the doors to prescience. Between knowing everything and foreseeing, there is just a step, merrily taken by the proponents of predictive big data, this discipline that pretends that knowing everything on a person would allow them to foresee his/her future acts on the basis of statistical models or signatures.

Finally, the last vaunt of this alleged all-mighty power of big data is power. As true as “Governing means anticipating”, foreseeing everything offers full authority. And the strong arm of this power is the algorithm, the key that allows one to solve any problem.

Utopia and dystopia are in one boat

Therefore, big data would be this all-mighty trinity of omniscience, prescience and power, for better and for worse, outlining on the one hand, a utopian future: a world where we will be able to anticipate all diseases, banish class struggle and inequalities, eradicate poverty and famine, a world where even immortality becomes conceivable (as we know, one works hard on this in the Silicon Valley); or drawing up, on the other hand, for some others, a future with dystopian threats: a world under generalized cyber surveillance, data totalitarianism, determinism… Two facets of the same fantasy.

Because, for now, in the face of the supposed all-mighty power of big data, reality seems to still resist…

About Paul Vacca

Paul Vacca is a novelist, essayist and consultant. He scans the social transformations related to digital technologies as well as the trends in media and cultural markets. He published articles in Technikart, Le Monde and La Revue des Deux Mondes, is a speaker for conferences at the Institut Français de la Mode and collaborates to the think-tank La Villa Numeris.

Recent publications: the novel Comment Thomas Leclerc 10 ans 3 mois et 4 jours est devenu Tom L’éclair et a sauvé le monde (Belfond 2015) and the essay La Société du hold-up - Le nouveau récit du capitalisme (Fayard 2012).

On Twitter : @Paul_Vacca