Some time ago I received a review copy of a book called “Ethics Of Big Data” from O’Reilly; I didn’t get round to writing a review of it here for a number of reasons but, despite its flaws (for example its brevity and limited scope), it’s worth reading. It deals with the ethics of data collection and data analysis from a purely corporate point of view: if organisations do not think carefully about what they are doing then
“Damage to your brand and customer relationships, privacy violations, running afoul of emerging legislation, and the possibility of unintentionally damaging reputations are all potential risks”
All of which is true, although I think what irked me about the book when I read it was that it did not tackle the wider and (to my mind) more important question of the social impact of new data technologies and their application. After all, this is what you and I do for a living – and I know that I haven’t spent nearly enough time thinking these issues through.
What prompted me to think about this again was a post by Adam Curtis which argues that the way that governments and corporations are using data is stifling us on a number of levels from the personal to the political:
“What Amazon and many other companies began to do in the late 1990s was build up a giant world of the past on their computer servers. A historical universe that is constantly mined to find new ways of giving back to you today what you liked yesterday – with variations.
Interestingly, one of the first people to criticise these kind of “recommender systems” for their unintended effect on society was Patti Maes who had invented RINGO. She said that the inevitable effect is to narrow and simplify your experience – leading people to get stuck in a static, ever-narrowing version of themselves.
Stuck in the endless you-loop.”
Once our tastes and opinions have been reduced to those of the cluster the k-means algorithm has placed us in we have become homogenised and easier to sell to, a slave to our past behaviour. Worse, the things we have in common with the people in other clusters become harder to see. Maybe all of this is inevitable, but if there is going to be an informed debate on this then shouldn’t we, as the people who actually implement these systems, take part in it?