Unbearable lightness of Big Data: Societal Impact Of Algorithms And How Big Companies Harvest Data, And Claim Private Human Experience As Commodities And Products

There is a high probability you had agreed to a set of terms and conditions that you never read while downloading an app this month. I recently did, with a clear knowledge, that whatever I signed up is watching me. A virtual panopticon in motion only that you sometimes are oblivious to its existence. The technology that structures our day today life is invisible – the GPS, which was once a contraption with visible antennas is now safely hidden inside the toughened glass of your latest android and iOS with microphones that always hears, and cameras that always see.  In this digital ecosystem, humanity loses its God given uniqueness and becomes sea of data tossed by government, and mega corporates like twitter, facebook, Instagram, amazon, google, Microsoft and others….how did we end up in a world where a microcosm of techies in silicon valley determined how the rest of the people in the world should live and behave ? what implications does this unregulated social media and big data have on human flourishing?

“I know you better than you know yourself” the megalomaniac Cristof says that to Truman in the Oscar winning movie “Truman Show.”  I recently watched this movie with my 15 year old son over the weekend. I have seen it a few times, however the experience this time was  surreal, more so when Nate asked, “actually how many cameras are watching Truman?”  I said around 5000 hidden cameras where broadcasting every detail about his life to the world wide audience.

Though the psychological science fiction comedy drama hit the screens close to two decades ago, the movie was prophetic in some ways – we today live in a data world augmented with invisible cameras. It was really cool at one time when Amazon suggests what book I should read next, and I get an offer on my email to buy Kombucha tea for weight reduction, and Coursera asks me to register for Network Analysis in Systems Biology, but once when algorithms starts to dictate on my personal freedom and when my privacy Is encroached its no longer cool anymore, its creepy. Are we all little Truman’s in this “Surveillance society?” How many “Cameras” are watching you and me?

What makes sweeping surveillance of this nature possible is the developments in science and technology; for better and for worse the investment in technology by the superpowers during global Coldwar had brought forth many technological marvels that has both saved humanity and also we have unleashed many destructive forces that stifle humanity. Today, we give away our hard won freedom for efficiency, and access to certain privileges. In the process we have evolved a Surveillance Capitalist society as Zuboff has beautifully captured in her book Surveillance Capitalism.

All that talk about Big Data bringing efficiency and human flourishing is a heavily contested argument. The worker efficiency that big data promises is not something new. Ironically, a century back in 1911, a young engineer by name Frederick Winslow Taylor did some scientific studies to improve worker efficiency which later evolved into “Principles of Scientific Management.” The efficiency movement or craze was hugely adopted by housewives to factory workers in the early days of 20th century America. The Tayloristic practices did bring huge profits for automobile companies and steel conglomerates. Seeing the profits many industrialists viewed Taylorism to have brought a paradigm shift in efficiency. However, the enthusiasm was short lived. Slowly, many began to view the very machines that were to aid humans were controlling and ordering human life and the whole Tayloristic practices were seen to be demeaning. In 1931, Charlie Chaplin brilliantly depicted the dehumanizing effects of modern technology by satirizing the assembly line in the movie “Modern Times.” In a similar fashion, gamification if not checked and channeled it could result in suppression and pervasive surveillance that Michel Foucault has warned us. Envision a scenario where all your time in office and your creative work and professional endeavors are tracked carefully through data, and are being given a rating through Points, Badges and pushed to Leaderboard for rewards!! The very incentive framework, though might have driven some productivity, might end up robbing the joy of creative work, interpersonal communication and privacy.

I head a lab for a major IT Company. I spend most of my waking hours in a virtual mode using VR gears tethered to laptops to create digital ecosystems. The whole field of Augmented, Virtual and Mixed realities are the next phase in computing – we call this new medium as Spatial Computing. Soon we will be moving away from glowing desktops, laptops and mobile screens ,that you are currently using to read this, into a computational space where the world will become your metaphoric desktop with information harnessed through your Mixed Reality glasses; part of my research is also on what kind of ethical challenges it can pose for humanity in this hyper real world. This new paradigm of spatial computing has the potential to rapidly advance the surveillance society. In the process, the existing forms of data led governance, and social media engagements reduces human beings to quantities and figures, configurations, and trends. As Christians how do we grapple with this? Shying away from technology borders on neo luddism; unfettered embrace makes us what Gilles Deleuze has termed  “dividual” — a physically embodied human subject that is endlessly divisible and reducible to data representations via the modern technologies of control, like computer-based systems.”  Can we bring theological insights to regulate this new form of media technology toward human flourishing?

Ashok Maharaj has a MS and PhD from Georgia Institute of Technology,  USA.  He was the Guggenheim Fellow with the National Air and Space, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D. C. (2010-2011) and also worked on a research project for NASA to write about NASA’s Global Ventures. He is currently heading the XR Lab at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), India. Over the last several years he has worked extensively on digital ecologies leveraging AR/VR/MR.

Reading List

Barbour, Ian G. 1992. Ethics in an Age of Technology. London: SCM Press.

Berman, Jules J. 2013. Principles of Big Data. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Borgman, Christine L. 2015. Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Networked World. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Fuller, M. Big Data, Ethics and Religion: New Questions from a New Science. Religions 20178, 88. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8050088

O’Neil, Cathy. 2016. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. London: Allen Lane.

Kitchin, Rob. 2014. The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. London: Sage Publications.

Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor, and Kenneth Cukier. 2013. Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think. London: John Murray.

Lepore, Jill. 2020. IF THEN: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. New York: Liveright.

Raley, Rita. 2013. Dataveillance and Countervaillance. In “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron. Edited by Lisa Gitelman. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 121–45.

Tavani, Herman T. 2013a. Ethics and Technology: Controversies, Questions and Strategies for Ethical Computing. Hoboken: Wiley.

 Véliz, Cariss, 2020 Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data Transworld Publishers Ltd

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