Big Data frightens me. I know it shouldn’t. I’m not really a technophobe. I can use a laptop, and my smartphone lets me do all kinds of things other than make phone calls – much to my astonishment. I even have a social media presence, of a sort.
My teenage son would disagree. That smartphone I’ve got? He had to show me how to turn it on. He’s a digital native, with an app for everything. He texts, Instagrams and Snapchats. Email? Yeah, he knows people used to use that. He “gets it,” and his attitude to a world steeped in data is a lot more relaxed than mine.
But then I’ve got a historical overview. In the last 25 years, I’ve watched with baffled unease as cell phones shrunk and the internet grew. And boy, does it grow.
Too Much Information?
How much and how quickly? Well, the basic unit of data is the byte. A byte is roughly the amount of data used to encode a single character of text in a computer.
Some estimates suggest that the amount of information handled across the internet in 2020 was around 44 zettabytes. That’s 44 with 21 zeroes after it: 44 million million billion bytes. And that amount roughly doubles every year.
No wonder we talk simply about “Big Data.” You can use fancier words, but they still can’t really express how much information that is.
Big Data represents the flow of information about anything and everything, from massively upscale scientific experiments to your online shopping list. It’s enabled by the vast growth in data capacity since the internet began. And the use that interested parties can make of it has caused a lot of disquiet.
The Fear of Big Data
People spook easily when it comes to Big Data. I know I do. Privacy is important, after all. And one effect of the availability of Big Data is to make your day-to-day decisions and choices transparent to others. Those others can include government agencies and major corporations. Now that’s scary.
And then there’s the question of influence. You’re likely familiar with the power of social media influencers. You may well be OK with them. After all, you can take the products they’re promoting, or leave them.
But what about someone using your data to persuade you how to vote? The Cambridge Analytica scandal hit the headlines in 2018, the company having illicitly acquired access to huge amounts of personal data through Facebook.
They then passed this data to political campaigners. The campaigners, in turn, were able to create profiles of tens of millions of Facebook users, and target them with specifically tailored campaign ads.
Are You More Than Your Datapoints?
So Big Data is a powerful, covert force, and those who use it may be up to no good. But that’s not the whole story, as Timandra Harkness points out in her book, “Big Data: Does Size Matter?”
The answer to the question in the subtitle is clearly “Yes.” The sheer volume and detail of the information trafficked online is staggering.
This can breed a further, deeper fear. Namely, that we’re all in danger of becoming nothing more or less than the sum of our data. Harkness asks the question explicitly in one chapter title: “Are You a Data Point or a Human Being?”
The book comes to a positive conclusion. We are all human – that’s a relief – but we need to be better, more ethical humans. Big Data isn’t too big. It may not even be big enough to do all the good it potentially can.
There’s nothing wrong with having many more zettabytes of data at our disposal. But we do need to learn to use it responsibly.
Balancing the Data Argument
Even so, is the availability of so much of your data not still a bad thing? Consider the pros as well as the cons. Adverts appear whenever you’re online. Sometimes they’re annoying, but at other times they’re offering just what you were looking for, almost as soon as you’d thought of it. Your smart fridge or domestic assistant allows you to keep tabs on your shopping needs.
At work, you can use customer profiling to improve your customer experience, and to develop new products that they want to buy. You can optimize your stock management by anticipating demand. The money and time-saving opportunities are huge.
Big Data’s importance is impossible to miss, even if you don’t always see it in operation. And don’t be surprised that you don’t see it. You’re not meant to. It’s a background force in all our lives, ever-present but usually invisible. But that doesn’t mean any of us – even native technophobes – should necessarily be afraid of it.
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