Big Data Dystopia?

In M. Lévy’s Théories des medias (UOTM), students learned about a lot of different things, such as digital currency, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, artificial intelligence, and even the use of emojis to convey emotion! It was a course geared towards 21st century developments in communications and showed students a glimpse into the future of teaching as we tweeted our weekly notes and tapped into the collective intelligence found on social media. The class was riveting from beginning to end, but the thing that I learned the most from UOTM was the extent to which new technologies, specifically Big Data and social media, are used to provoke social change.

I’ve always believed in the power of the internet to reach out to others on an individual level, but my thinking was restricted to this. For example, I frequently use crowdsourcing on social media, particularly to gain some insight regarding my peers’ views concerning social/political issues. I’ve also seen some wonderful examples of crowdfunding for great causes from some of my friends. I’ve made use of online libraries and journals to do research. Furthermore, I personally use Facebook and other communication platforms to share my own ideas about mental wellness and try to encourage positive change in the world, trying to show others that this new technology of ours can be used for good, and not only as an evil distraction.

Despite all of this, I had never paused to reflect on the level of change that might be possible by strategically targeting a large portion of the population through the use of algorithms, and I was intrigued by the prospect. M. Lévy’s class last semester got me interested in the use of propaganda in a new era, but I didn’t really understand how it worked, and UOTM gave me a lot of the missing pieces I needed in order to further comprehend the subject.

At the core of what I’m talking about is Big Data. This is a relatively recent concept which basically involves huge datasets that have previously been too large and complex to deal with. The most impactful social function of Big Data is able to use analytics to predict consumer behaviour and target individuals based on their online activity. (Note: Big Data is also used for scientific data analysis and research, but this is not my topic of choice.) The course highlighted some pertinent examples to better explain the ability of technology to enact largescale social change, which I will now briefly outline.

Cambridge Analytica, BREXIT, and the Trump Campaign

cambridge x prop.jpgThe media is seen as largely influential in its traditional state where billboards and magazines are said to “warp young minds” and influence our standards of beauty. But imagine how much more effective media messages would be if they were targeting to each individuals’ interests. This is precisely what Cambridge Analytica, a company that has developed algorithms to categorise individuals based on their digital footprint, aims to do. Their algorithms use psychometric principles in order to know how to best influence individual people according to for politic purposes. As mentioned in my tweet above, this is essentially new-age propaganda. Cambridge Analytica was employed in both BREXIT and the Trump campaign, and is seen as one of the influencing factors for the separation and election to presidency respectively.

Aside from the strategic use of Big Data through Cambridge Analytica, Trump also made unprecedented use of social media to reach out to potential voters and garner attention. By refusing to conform to mainstream political etiquette online, Trump encouraged frustrated citizens to vote for him, in hopes of changing the country’s capitalist status quo.

Big Data and China’s “Social Credit” System

This new technological age is being heralded as being a “post-privacy” society and, in many ways, I believe this to be accurate. Individuals’ behaviours are able to be tracked and interpreted for commercial and political purposes, as clearly exemplified through the use of Big Data in the context of Cambridge Analytica and similar companies. However, even more intrusive and shocking than online propaganda is, in my opinion, the potential future use for Big Data technology.

“Imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how ‘trustworthy’ you are.”

Simon Denyer for Washington Post 

This sounds like the beginning of a dystopian novel or movie, but it is a conceivable reality due to the extensive ability of technology, harnessed to store and interpret individuals’ data. What China is proposing to do is to basically create a social system as a means of “motivating” the populace to behave in ways which meet ideal behaviour, as defined by the government. Medical, legal, and commercial records, family history, social media, and more, could all be targets of governmental assessment and sanction.

While this system is proposed allegedly to support social reform and decrease crime, it is obvious to most that this is a huge invasion of privacy and highly reductionist of human nature.

Towards a Dystopian Future?

Living in a post-privacy world has many people scared, and for good reason. Clearly, Big Data can be used irresponsibly and gives tremendous power to influence people to an unprecedented extent. However, being scared will do nothing to ameliorate the situation. These technologies are already available, and becoming more efficient, effective, and accessible by the day. Going forward, we, as a society need to focus our attention on a more proactive response. At a societal level changes need to be made, such the adaptation of legislation to reflect technological developments, to continue to protect individuals’ liberties and freedoms. And what can you do? Educate yourself, of course. Critical thinking is crucial to surviving this 21st century world and to avoid falling prey to propaganda.




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