By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Jonathan Hogan
Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, said, “You have to fight for your privacy or you lose it.” Mayer-Schőnberger and Cukier infer in their book, Big Data, that civilization’s privacy is already lost.
Google’s corporate motto, “Do No Evil”, is laudable. However, their motto is an unfulfillable ideal. Google’s desire to digitize world’ knowledge is a Pandora’s Box, a gateway to the good and evil of human nature; with the only good thing, hope, remaining in the box. Big Data explains how personal, government, and private data collection steadily erode the idea of privacy, freedom of choice, and individuality.
Eric Schmidt’s dictum shifts the burden of privacy protection to the individual. He infers individuals are responsible for their own privacy; even though, privacy invasion is largely caused by government and free enterprise data collection. Why should the individual be compelled to fight for privacy? Government and free enterprise are more responsible for privacy invasion than the individual. It is up to the government and business community, more than the individual, to protect privacy.
When one is born they become a public person. Privacy is a growing fiction in the modern world. Big Data explains how every store purchase, every computer click; every licensing requirement is a data point in human life. Every data point is subject to collection, categorization, and record. Privacy went from marginally possible to completely impossible with the advent of digitization. Big Data explains how the confluence of the information age and computer capability changes the way humans think and act.
Before the advent of ones and zeroes for computer data entry, detailed information was gathered on a relatively limited number of things. With the Gutenberg’ press, available information increased quickly but, with computer collection in the 20th century, data collection advanced meteorically. Cause and effect were the primary interest of data collectors in Gutenberg’s time. In the computer age, correlation becomes the more critical component of data collectors.
Mayer-Schőnberger and Cukier coin the word datification to identify a Gutenberg’ form of data collection. In the printed media age, there were limits to datification because of human time constraint. Now with improvements in computer hardware (particularly miniaturization of chips) and software, the only limit to datification is the inventiveness of the human mind.
As growth of computer memory expands and data manipulation improves, correlation replaces causal explanations for the exigencies of life. This Pandora’s Box of digitized information allows governments to collect massive amounts of data and profile people, places, and things. Free enterprise is now able to customize services and sales to actual and prospective customers. Big Data is a Pandora’s Box because it contains both good and evil. Only hope remains in the bottom of the box; i.e. hope that good prevails in use of collected information.
The hope, for good, in the public sector is for government to understand what they can do to improve education, reduce crime and poverty, and improve people’s lives. The hope, for good, in private enterprise is that businesses will grow their organizations, create more jobs, and capitalize new growth by being more successful in selling services and merchandise to the public.
The evil is in correlated probability; i.e. the potential for government to make mistakes in interpreting results of profiled education systems, crime, and poverty. Broad generalization can become self-fulfilling prophecy that demotivates individual’ initiative.
Facts are slippery things. When aggregated, facts can distort individual truth. Profiling can destroy individual opportunity by forecasting probabilistic evil.
The evil in business comes from white collar’ business criminals and hackers that capitalize on business data collection to victimize unwary customers. The economic consequence of business and white collar evil is to benefit the few at the expense of the many.
On balance, Mayer-Schőnberger and Cukier believe Big Data will improve lives. They believe profiling can be regulated. They believe Big Data correlation is a practical way of changing public and private policies because life is probabilistic and correlation beats destiny, or any other unproven causal explanation for life.
Invasion of privacy is a fact of life in the 21st century. Big Data has become a force of nature, a Pandora’s Box–opened; with consequences that cannot be foretold, only managed.