ANVIL 13th Sept Julie Arliss. Big Data and the Death of Individualism

Everyone agreed that this was an exceptionally interesting and challenging session and that Julie really had got us all thinking.

What is BIG DATA? It is the capacity of computers to produce, store and analyse ever larger masses of data relating to almost every area of life from health to education, to travel, to dealings with government, to what we buy and what we look at etc.  This is happening on an exponential scale and changing not only the world we live in but our brains and identities and may be making us increasingly susceptible to subtle social control.

She quoted the MIT scientist Professor Alex Pentland, author of Social Physics, his latest book which emphasises that the analysis of data regarding human behaviour has reached a point where the algorithms involved work with a precision more akin to physics than biology.

Pentland has identified us as fitting into “tribes” that share patterns of behaviour, tastes and consumption such as our choices of food entertainment and fashion.  Within these tribes we then become creatures of habit.  To get us to change so that we might behave better, we need personalised, individualised incentives. Subtle carrots it seems are much better than sticks, and we hardly notice them. Also as Amazon shows our collected data is a great marketing tool as we are told on the basis of our choices what we might like to buy next.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the take-over of our lives by our smart phones and here she was particularly worried by the impact of social media on young teen and pre-teens who are increasingly living with their phones on for most of the day and often much of the night if not stopped.  She feels that real face to face friendships are being replaced by ersatz “friends” who have signalled that they “like” images posted to them so that each teenager is inclined to build up a huge circle of such “friends”, a circle that can cross continents and have little to do with any real relationship.

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