Culture is future » Innovation and digital


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

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

3. Big Data : dollars and myths

A mystery remains. How is it that in spite of disappointing results – and even fiascos – the frenzy surrounding big data goes on increasing? We can doubt the concrete effects achieved by big data, but it is now obvious that its craze on the market is very real. Internet giants, startups, cloud players, brands, advertising agencies, all of them step into this business with overwhelming rates of return. AWS (Amazon Web Service), Amazon’s cloud computing department is the only one of the group to make profits – what allows Jeff Bezos to cover some of his debts and to satisfy his hunger for external growth. Not to mention the omnipresence of conferences, symposiums and other keynotes imbued with messianic evangelicalism and big business that are always sold-out. It is undeniable, big data is a big business that sells and pushes sales.

A fantasy economy

 In fact, the paradox is only apparent. In fact, the link between hypothetical and monetized results have become a basic equation of the times. We live in one virtual society, not only in the “digital” sense, but also became everything that has not yet become – which is thus the state of virtuality – possesses more value than what already exists. Any company is worth more with its shadow projecting on the future than its present state. Only is important the desirability which in turn can provoke at the same time investors, consumers, media, social networks and street cafés…

And the desire is more an affair of fantasies than tangible proofs. And on this topic big data develops a strong fantasmagoric aura that it draws from the origins of the three big contemporary myths.

Three structuring myths

Big data is firstly, an Eldorado. The perfect programmatic vector to sharpen greed and start a gold rush. There is evidently the “big” that authorizes all superlatives and opens all horizons of immensities like a hold-up booty. But there is also the “data” that constitutes a form of digitized gold. Like the yellow metal, it possesses a dual character. A physical dimension, quantifiable – we have the number of terabytes which is are billions of billion octets – compatible, stocked on clouds. And a symbolic aura that an occult branch of power, of control and of force because data is also information.

Then, big data, inevitably evokes Big Brother, the myth built by George Orwell in 1984. A constant reference to illustrate the data-panopticon, this capacity that big data players seemingly have – first of all the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) – in order to know and control everything via geolocation, the multiplication of digital traces left by each on the Web, via applications and social networks…

And lastly, big data is experienced like an echo from the Minority Report the new anticipation of Philip K. Dick – widely popularized by the homonymous film by Steven Spielberg with Tom Cruise. A fiction that is set in the future, a police, thanks to mutants with divine powers – the Precogs, abbreviation of precognition – would be in the measure to stop suspects before they even commit the act. A perfect illustration of the fantasies underlying the hypothesis of predictive big data: being ready thanks to user profiling to anticipate their future state of desire. In the 70s, the myth of the subliminal message that frightened the enlightened minds. The belief that the existence of a hidden injunction inside advertising message, like an undetectable pattern in a carpet that is even more efficient since it’s meant to directly target the unconsciousness without any filter. Today it’s another occult force that we suspect to be at work. Since we know everything through our digital traces – profiling – we may be capable of predicting what we desire.

Ascending spiral

We may think that the last two myths – 1984 and the Minority Report – generally waved off by its detractors, are bothering the players of big data. Although, it is quite the contrary that is taking place: these “totalitarian myths” do nothing except entertain and feed the fantasies on the allmightiness of big data. More we treat the actors of Big Brother or of the Spinx, more we end up accrediting them the effectiveness of their power. Which equally accrues their attractiveness from their clients’ perspectives and consequentially, their valuation. And further the latter grows, further it becomes in turn the proof of their power. And so forth… an ascending spiral logic in which all contributes to reinforce the power of big data. A virtuous circular dynamic, as to say. Which is also sometimes – is it necessary to recall? – the origin of speculative bubbles. 

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 inTechnikart, 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

3. Big data : des dollars et des mythes