Data-ism

I had the opportunity today to hear a talk by Steve Lohr, New York Times technology reporter and author of the recent book, Data-ism: The Revolution Transforming Decision Making, Consumer Behavior, and Almost Everything Else.

Lohr said that “big data” is more than just a large collection of digital information, it’s a philosophical framework – a way of approaching the world. Big data, he said, allows people to see patterns in the world and to make better sense of the world around them.

Ultimately, he argued, big data is a revolution in decision-making.

This revolution can have many positive implications, making our lives simpler, faster, and better.

For example, according to Lohr, in 1880 the U.S. census took eight years to conduct. While the population swelled in 1890, this census took only a few weeks to complete. The difference was due to a technological innovation: the creation of a machine-readable punch card by a company that later became IBM.

Of course there are also possible pitfalls – one can imagine using big data to determine who gets a loan going terribly wrong. And, yes, this is something that “data science lenders” do, claiming that their methodology is more accurate than more traditional approaches.

Lohr was somewhat weary of these big data, automated, decision making processes, arguing that when data is used to make decisions affecting people’s lives, that process needs to be transparent.

But, he was more casual about the change than I might have thought. Perhaps it’s because he has covered technology’s evolution for nearly a decade, but – he was somewhat skeptical of concerns about privacy and the de-humanization of our lives.

Technology evolves and our mores will evolve with it, he seemed to say.

Lohr commented that when the handheld Kodak camera was originally introduced, it was seen as a invasion of privacy. Banned from beaches and the Washington monument, it was seen as a danger, a possible corrupting force.

Until privacy expectations evolved to meet the new technology.

Perhaps it is just nostalgia that makes us fear this brave new world.

It’s an interesting argument, and I think it’s good to be skeptical of our instinctual reactions to things. But pointing to the mistakes of our past fears seems insufficient – perhaps we should be more concerned with privacy, but have simply become slowly accustomed to not having it.

That could be a natural evolution, or it could be a slow degradation – with serious and lasting consequences.

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