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Big Data, Dataism, Google and the End of Free Will

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This is just the beginning.

For we are now at the confluence of two scientific tidal waves. On the one hand, biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body and, in particular, of the brain and of human feelings. At the same time, computer scientists are giving us unprecedented data-processing power. When you put the two together, you get external systems that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can. Once Big Data systems know me better than I know myself, authority will shift from humans to algorithms. Big Data could then empower Big Brother.

This has already happened in the field of medicine. The most important medical decisions in your life are increasingly based not on your feelings of illness or wellness, or even on the informed predictions of your doctor — but on the calculations of computers who know you better than you know yourself. A recent example of this process is the case of the actress Angelina Jolie. In 2013, Jolie took a genetic test that proved she was carrying a dangerous mutation of the BRCA1 gene. According to statistical databases, women carrying this mutation have an 87 per cent probability of developing breast cancer. Although at the time Jolie did not have cancer, she decided to pre-empt the disease and undergo a double mastectomy. She didn’t feel ill but she wisely decided to listen to the computer algorithms. “You may not feel anything is wrong,” said the algorithms, “but there is a time bomb ticking in your DNA. Do something about it — now!”

What is already happening in medicine is likely to take place in more and more fields. It starts with simple things, like which book to buy and read. How do humanists choose a book? They go to a bookstore, wander between the aisles, flip through one book and read the first few sentences of another, until some gut feeling connects them to a particular tome. Dataists use Amazon. As I enter the Amazon virtual store, a message pops up and tells me: “I know which books you liked in the past. People with similar tastes also tend to love this or that new book.”

This is just the beginning. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able constantly to collect data on their users while they are reading books. Your Kindle can monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. If Kindle was to be upgraded with face recognition software and biometric sensors, it would know how each sentence influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It would know what made you laugh, what made you sad, what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, computer programs need never forget. Such data should eventually enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also allow Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to press your emotional buttons.

Take this to its logical conclusion, and eventually people may give algorithms the authority to make the most important decisions in their lives, such as who to marry. In medieval Europe, priests and parents had the authority to choose your mate for you. In humanist societies we give this authority to our feelings. In a Dataist society I will ask Google to choose. “Listen, Google,” I will say, “both John and Paul are courting me. I like both of them, but in a different way, and it’s so hard to make up my mind. Given everything you know, what do you advise me to do?”

Geege, thanks for posting this.  I had to laugh at some the article's conclusions, though.  This is a good summary of the current techno-religious view of Big Data... a view that is very much caught up in the current hype, while ignoring some fundamental math.  Statistician Evan Miller does a good job of explaining these here -- -- and here --

We do increasingly rely on technology for advice though.

Which conclusion was laughable?

>> We do increasingly rely on technology for advice though.

Yes I think that point stands up fine.

>> Which conclusion was laughable?

The idea that Big Data will unlock some kind of new paradigm for extracting insights.  I.e. specifically that a large part of the value is coming from the "bigness" of data sets. True in some cases, but not most IMO. As Evan Miller explains in the linked articles.

And I do realize it's only laughable because I'm weird... I'm not suggesting that this should be obvious in general. 

Agreed, it's not the size that matters. It's the ability to analyze, hypothesize, observe, synthesize, correlate, and learn that matters.

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