You don't often think about big-data and cannibals in the same context. But after reading the new Pew Internet/Elon University survey on the state of big-data, I found it impossible to stop thinking about what is arguably one of the most haunting Twilight Zone episodes of all times.
It's called "To Serve Man" -- and for reasons I'll have to explain to make clear, it could be considered a metaphor for big-data. You just have to think of big-data as a synonym for the Kanamits, a race of nine-foot-tall aliens who land on Earth.
Anyway, the Kanamits arrive on earth -- quite uninvited -- and start promoting the fact that their intent is to only help humanity. And they do: Their advanced technology quickly eradicates many of the planet's oldest problems, from hunger to the high cost of energy. And it makes life better, or so it seems -- resolving questions and increasing convenience. It can even transform barren deserts into big, blooming fields.
Starting to see the parallels?
Well, here's the kicker. Everyone assumes the aliens are on the side of the humans because the leader carries a book called To Serve Man. Only when it's too late -- when humans are willingly boarding a spaceship to return to the Kanamits' home planet -- does someone realize what the book really is: a cookbook, full of recipes about serving man -- on a plate.
So here's my question. Does big-data have the potential to serve man -- as in make life better -- or will it simply serve man up on a metaphorical plate to government agencies, marketers, and various and assorted other data collectors?
That was what I wondered after reading the new Pew Internet/Elon University study. While at first glance the survey seems to suggest a lot of enthusiasm for big-data, respondents serve up a healthy dose of skepticism about its collection, use, and value. (See We're Too Small to Embrace Big-Data, Critics Claim.)
Still, more than half the of 1,021 Internet experts, observers, and stakeholders who responded to the opt-in online survey predict big-data is likely to be "a huge positive for society in nearly all respects" by the year 2020. "Technology experts believe the growing ability to collect and analyze massive sets of information, known as Big Data, will help people be more nimble and adaptive," the report stated.
The report includes numerous supportive quotes from those who responded to the survey.
Jeff Jarvis, associate professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, noted:
Media and regulators are demonizing Big Data and its supposed threat to privacy. Such moral panics have occurred often thanks to changes in technology... But the moral of the story remains: there is value to be found in this data, value in our newfound publicness."
Patterns and anomalies revealed by things as disparate as Internet searches could, he suggested, help public health officials track a pandemic, saving millions of lives.
Sean Mead, director of analytics at Mead, Mead & Clark, Interbrand, said big-data, along with easier tools, wider distribution of analytics skills, and early stage artificial intelligence software "will lead to a burst of economic activity and increased productivity."
And Tiffany Shlain, director and producer of the film Connected and founder of The Webby Awards, added, "Big Data allows us to see patterns we have never seen before. This will clearly show us interdependence and connections that will lead to a new way of looking at everything."
There seems to be little argument that big-data will improve our ability to find, track, and use a myriad of connections and observations. The unanswered question: Will we like what we see or have the humanity to use the information ethically, transparently, and for the general good?
"The Internet magnifies the good, bad, and ugly of everyday life,” said danah boyd, senior researcher for Microsoft Research. She's not only an individualist -- spelling her name lowercase, a la e.e. cummings -- she's a realist.
“Of course these things will be used for good. And of course they'll be used for bad and ugly. Science fiction gives us plenty of templates for imagining where that will go. But that dichotomy gets us nowhere," she wrote.
Big-data could open possibilities that we cannot yet imagine, she continued. And yes, we can agree, it has the potential to serve man. Just remember: that's what the Kanamits said, too.
Actually (not meaning to split hairs) the Kanamits weren't actually human, right? So could they actually be considered cannibals, or just jolly space hunters preparing to enjoy a delicious new species for lunch?
In any case, it should come as no surprise that I agree with the main point that Big Data and Analytics can be a sort of two-edged sword, Serving Man (nobly) or Serving Man (wink-wink)...
As I've said on other threads ... it comes down to who is in control and how these tools are used. There are some awfully nasty people in awfully powerful positions, so...
Incidentally, I think the play on "serve" was also involved in the title of the hilarious 1970s-era British TV comedy series (about salespeople in a London department store) called "Are You Being Served?"
hmm, this blog got my dark side rolling. What if serial killlers, stalkers or criminals got their hands on big data? Could they analyze it to find victims and serve them up on their platters? We really do need to consider the security issues when referring to big-data. How personal can it get?
Yes it's a difficult balancing act, I think the biggest problem is that we'll often hear about advocate groups who are protecting user data or trying to regulate how that data is used but it's not until someone gets caught abusing their users that we hear about the other side of the coin. There's no telling how many times they got away with it before someone caught on and then the outrage usually goes away pretty quickly.
What's that famous Ben Franklin quote? Something like, a person who is willing to hand over liberty for more security doesn't deserve liberty? Anyway, this story reminds me of that, and that perpetual claim by security fanatics whenever the government gets more power to watch over us. That claim being: you don't have to worry about anything, unless you're doing something wrong. And to refute that you simply need to look at instances where governments have abused technology to watch, arrest, harrass, disappear people. Big Data is another tool that could be abused ... and most likely already is being abused by governments.
Like any tool big data and it's effect on us will depend on who is using it. Marketing companies are using it pretty well to better target us but on the flip side we have consumer advocate groups who can use the same data to protect us from shady companies. There is a balancing act there and the two sides seem pretty evenly matched so I don't think we have to worry too much about big data loading us up like cattle for the slaughter.
Its like a see-saw cutting both ways. It will serve man yes, but it will also serve up man because it does bring to life the old adage that 'you can run but you can't hide'. Your data is everywhere so you don't speak of privacy from government or sales agencies.
PS: I should really get to watch this episode...sounds like something to kill off a saturday afternoon constructively :D
Big data is neither good nor evil, but the predominant or prevailant intents of its use serves in defining it. Just as the splitting of the atom served both great deeds for mankind, yet saddled us with the potential for great evil.
@Noreen, Amazing, simply amazing. I still remember the first time I saw this episode. I think you bring up some great points with regards to data and how we use it. And give us something very interesting (and fun) to think about with regards to data.
Noreen, your mind certainly works in mysterious ways. ;-)
But we are asked to take a lot of big leaps when it comes to big-data, so why not this big leap in thinking about it as compared to cannibalism.
You specifically ask, "Does big-data have the potential to serve man -- as in make life better -- or will it simply serve man up on a metaphorical plate to government agencies, marketers, and various and assorted other data collectors?" My answer: Big-data does have the potential to serve man, making life better. But, yes, as much as it does that it also puts man in the position of being served up to the government, etc. I'd like to think we could have the former without the latter -- but then I'd be living in the Twilight Zone.
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