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Contribution : "Reflections on Big Data: The cultural and ethical aspects of personal data" by Dianel Aldana

“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral (…)

Technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves.”[1]

The quotation above -also known as Kranzberg’s First Law on the relationship between technology and sociocultural setting- suits well to address the Big Data resounding phenomenon.

The Big Data Boom spurs as much enthusiasm as dismissals among stakeholders, resulting in a stirring debate that raises new questions about the use, misuse and abuse of personal data conveying private cultural information.

The cultural dimension of Big Data can be easily perceived by looking at some sophisticated tools that measure social network’s activities through sentiment and behavioural analytics.

A Twitter sentiment analysis tool, Sentiment140, clusters in its site 132 applications, some of them working with distinctly cultural data (Mozvo and Twitcritic for movie sentiment analysis, Opinion Crawl for sentiments on people, Political Twitter Sentiment for sentiment on Republican nominees, etc).[2]

These applications are able to unveil emotions, opinions and attitudes of millions of users, confirming the shift of Big Data from mere quantitative figures to qualitative, insightful cultural ones.

Big Data: a double edged-sword

The gathering and interpretation of anonymous cultural data can be fruitful at different levels. In cultural industries, it can help producers to track trends, identify new challenges and inform decision-making.

More broadly, cultural data proper use can result in innovative solutions for societal issues. Knowing cultural behaviours of a certain territory can led to better cultural development policies.

But Big data is a doubled- side sword. While, on one hand, it has the power to transform society positively, on the other hand it also entails huge risks.

Personal data misuse attempts directly to individual’s privacy rights.  Unethical practices of personal cultural data also include intrusive marketing, mass surveillance practices by data holders as well as the discrimination or harassment of individuals based in his or her digital cultural information, such as political preferences or digital political activism.

Another worrying issue is the fact that personal cultural data is far from being individual empowering and serves mainly the interests of business and governments. Even when individuals consent the use of their personal data, they are rarely fully aware of the conditions and implications these entail. Privacy policies are often too time consuming and user-unfriendly. This exposes the need for better practices that give individuals the tools to control better personal information.

Personal cultural data: impact on creative industries

Big data has the potential to revolutionize creative industries. First, by defying the “Nobody knows property” (Caves, 2000) inherent to the sector. Indeed, through the collection and analysis of personal data, producers can reduce the uncertainties of cultural consumption and forecast tastes more easily.  This, some argue, can conduct to the dismissal of creativity on behalf of zero- risk cultural products and best sellers. We can also intuit, however, the resistance of some creative forms, as pointed by Murciani in a study by the Forum d’Avignon.

Still, other questions remain. Will the winners be those capable to invest massively in big data infrastructure, again, in deterrence of creativity? Indeed, Big Data may become a new type of corporate asset and the source of competitive advantage in cultural industries.

To address these and many other ethical issues emerging from Big Data use, there is an urgent need to create a declaration of Internet users and creators. This declaration will serve as a guideline for national and international jurisdiction on data protection and will set a guideline for conduct codes and good practices.

Is in this context that Forum d’Avignon plays a key role in inciting debate and reflection on the topic. On September the 19th, Form d’Avignon will gather cultural professionals, artists, researchers, students and policymakers to reflect together on a frame of governance for Big Data in a time in which digital technologies advance at a much faster pace than the development of policies aiming to regulate it.

It is an honour for me to be part of it.

[1] Kranzberg, M. (1986) "Technology and history: Kranzberg's laws", Technology and Culture. Vol. 27. no.3 pp-545

About Dianel Aldana

Dianel Aldana is an international cultural professional from Mexico. She has experience in project management, financing and producing in the performing arts sector as Development Coordinator at Arte Escena Crisol.

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