I have to admit to a certain cynicism about the age of big data – the age of online convenience where we can shop from home, buy stuff with the click of a button, and have it sent to us. Books, among other things.
But there’s a down-side. ‘They’ know what you bought – and while you might not care a whit about such things, that data is used to barrage you to buy more stuff. (‘You might like…’) Profiles are built from your online habits – profiles that might not be true, but which you get slapped with anyway.
It’s something writers have to wrestle with. Say you’re researching for a book involving shoot-em-up action. Your online profile and book purchases make it look to the analytical algorithms that you have a deep interest in stuff that everyday people in most places around the world don’t, unless they have nefarious purpose in mind.
The reality? You want to write a compelling thriller novel.
What worries me is that the ‘false positive’ problem is compounded by a known cognitive illusion – the conflation between interest and identity, interest and advocacy. We assign guilt by association. The idea that interest might be abstracted doesn’t seem to enter the calculation.
There’s also the problem of where that data might end up. Not today, not tomorrow – maybe a few years down the track. History has plenty of examples of the innocent being victimised either on a 2 + 2 = 5 fallacy or because they have suddenly been demonised anyway. That last nightmare certainly came true for the Dutch. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Dutch census-takers began identifying ethnic groups. Innocent enough. Forty years later, their neighbours invaded and – hey presto! – there were ready-made lists of all the ethnic groups they didn’t like. Wham! (I still recall sitting on a Lufthansa flight out of Schiphol, a decade or so ago, when departure came to a grinding halt to mark the minute’s silence required on the day the Dutch remembered the holocaust.)
History doesn’t repeat in the specific, of course, but human nature seldom changes. There is a theory that we are framed, fundamentally, by a raft of behaviours that were shaped in old hunter-gatherer times – usually involving ‘us’ (originally extended kin groups, now abstracted as national, ethnic and abstracted identity such as sports teams or institutions) vs ‘them’ (other people). Apparently we can, cognitively, accommodate about 150 such people as ‘us’ – an idea first proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. According to that idea, a settled society puts a lot of strain on the whole mix because that ‘us and them’ concept is stretched so far.
It seems to me that one of the outcomes has been the nasty behaviours that we decry, which have popped up time and again through history – the tyrants, the police states (which include Elizabethan England), the state-sanctioned bullying that follows the latest social panic (for the Elizabethans it was Catholicism) and all the rest.
What happens if that big data gets picked up and used by dark forces? My history studies convince me – sadly – that the dark side is the dominant side of human nature. Humans are innate bullies, because bullying is a winning strategy for self-validation. How can you lose, if you take away the ability of your target to defend themselves? We routinely rationalise our insecurities in ways that turn us into monsters. And the various expressions of human society frequently provide intellectual, political and social structures that sanction such bullying – intellectualised, rationalised, but ultimately all pivoting around such strategies, often then applied at institutional and state level. The monstrous evil of the totalitarian powers of the early-mid twentieth century was the industrialised expression of something that had been around forever. It was given apocalyptic scale by the application of industrial power – which made it look unusual. But I think the underlying issues driving it were still a reflection of a reality of the human condition. One we have to watch out for, because it can express itself in other contexts if we aren’t careful.
What does that mean for the connected age of big data? I often see predictions of an Orwellian future – Big Brother monitors our every move, every step. Technically that’s the case now, given the way behaviours on the internet are recorded. But there’s a difference. George Orwell (Eric Blair) modelled his vision of human nature on the way it had emerged in the early twentieth century – specifically, in Stalinist Soviet Union. It was an imposed future, crushing an unwilling people.
What we actually have is something else – something implied by Aldous Huxley, for whom a future dystopia would arrive not because it was imposed, but because society invited it to happen. People would want all the benefits of technology, convenience, and all the rest. But it would come with a dark side. I think he was right. And I also think that such a future wouldn’t become obvious until it was upon us – we would sidle into it, driven by our desire to validate ourselves as individuals through the easiest path to that desire, because that is human nature. And then darkness will fall. Because that is also in human nature.
Can we avoid falling into the trap? It is within human ability to do so. I hope.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016