Revolt of the data points

Libération has a very interesting article about the politics and ethics of big data. It cites some excellent books, such as Eden Medina’s brilliant Cybernetic Revolutionaries about Project Cybersyn in Allende’s Chile, and Alain Desrosières’ classic The Politics of Large Numbers. It doesn’t mention Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which makes exactly this point (and is a cracking read too): «La planification soviétique et l’ultralibéralisme se rejoignent ainsi pour asservir le droit à ses calculs d’utilité.»

There is huge interest in using big data techniques to construct better economic statistics (including on my part!). Here in the UK, the ONS is launching a data science campus. The Turing Institute has just been funded by HSBC to look at economic data (although the release says nothing about the work or the researchers involved, so this looks like very early stages). There’s particular progress on constructing price indices using big data, as in this VoxEU column or the Billion Prices Project.

But, as the Libération article underlines, the utopianism of ‘datacratie’ can tip into a dystopian extreme. The technology looks like it can make the utilitarian project of measuring the costs and benefits of everthing a reality, extracting information from every click, every move, every choice. But when the data points (aka humans) realise what’s happening, they won’t necessarily like it.

Bring on the philosophers and ethicists.




2 thoughts on “Revolt of the data points

  1. Hi Diane.
    In my first post here, allow me suggest a slightly different perspective on the Big Data issue, where you conclude: “But when the data points (aka humans) realise what’s happening, they won’t necessarily like it.”

    What I claim is that, as (some) humans use the data points in order to: better understand, influence, and especially profit from knowing the data points about other peoples’ behavior, the profitable insights will lead to changed behavior by those making profit. This changed behavior by Data collectors will induce changes in the humans creating the data points — which will erode the profitable insight.

    This is weaker than Rational Agent, but related — whenever an economic “regularity” allows some people to make a higher profit, there will be increasing numbers of people trying to make that higher profit, and this behavior change will partially invalidate the originating “regularity” by causing other people to adjust as well.

    PS. I quite like your anti-spam calculation combining a ## – number in characters.
    I came here because

    • Thanks very much Tom. You might well be right but it seems to me that politics comes into it here, in determining what constrains behaviour. But I agree with your general point, which also seems to me to undermine the paternalism of behavioural economics.

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