Big Data vs. Liberalism

In a recent article called Does Trump’s Rise Mean Liberalism’s End?” in The New Yorker, Yuval Noah Harari claims that in the wake of the collapsing “Liberal Story”, no new story has taken its place and as a consequence we get Donald Trump. This happens due to the disillusion among Americans after having believed in the promises and assurances presented in the liberal dream which claims that “if we only liberalize and globalize our political and economic systems, we will produce paradise on earth, or at least peace and prosperity for all. According to this story (…) humankind is inevitably marching toward a global society of free markets and democratic politics.

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Harari continues his article by explaining the history of liberalism and the reasons to its fall and then claims that “If the Liberal Story promised salvation through globalization and liberalization, the new meta-narrative promises salvation through Big Data algorithms”. He also says that with enough information and computing power, an external algorithm can understand us better than we can understand ourselves. This would create a situation in which “authority will shift away from humans to algorithms, and democratic elections and free markets—as well as authoritarian dictators and rigid ayatollahs—will be as obsolete as chain-mail armour and flint knives” (newyorker.com).

Comparing Neoliberalism to Big Data algorithms in this way, in which the latter seem to be next in line after the failure of the first, is something I find very interesting. I am not sure I share the view of Big Data as a new ideology separate from previous ideologies; I actually think it is a continuation to neoliberal reasoning, albeit in a new suit. Harari writes that “authority will shift away from humans to algorithms”, but I would like to claim that he is wrong; it is not humans but markets that has been the authority within the liberal view of the world.

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In my eyes, communism has been presented as something driven by people, especially in the sense of people being the motor of the revolutions taking place. And even though liberalism inevitably also is a process lead by people, the idea of an “invisible hand of the market” creates an imagery in which something bigger than us humans is in charge.
Keeping that in mind, I find the quote presented by Spratt and Baker (2016) in regards to Big Data very interesting:

(…) big data may lead to the creation of new markets and new infrastructure, with producers and consumers of data feeding into a system connected by complex physical infrastructure. (…) big data will influence various sectors, institutions and networks through its effects on: (i) production and delivery of goods and services (including public services), (ii) marketing and communication, and (iii) organisational and network structures. In each case, big data has the potential to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and increase productivity, but may also have negative impacts, by increasing ‘digital divides’ across and within countries, creating privacy concerns and undermining civil liberties, or leading to job losses.

To me, there are several aspects of this quote that makes me think of neoliberal arguments and claims, such as the creation of new markets, the importance of producers and consumers, as well as its effects on structures. I would also want to include the commodification of data by companies working with it, hence putting an economic value on something that could be considered a common good and as such creating a product for the market. Also the negative impacts presented in the quote echoes its ideas and consequences. Jerven (2013) states that “The structural adjustment process meant liberalization reforms and a withdrawal of the state, not only through privatization but also by cutting back its role as a development planner”. It may be a different arguments and methods, but I wonder if the result is not the same with the only difference that the algorithms will be the reason to the withdrawal of the state instead of the market.

The ideas and consequences of neoliberalism and the ideology of Big Data also bear some resemblance. To me, the notion of a “free market” that claims to be open to everyone but that actually recreates divides and unequal opportunities is perhaps one of the biggest and most dangerous similarities. Also the claim that there is a need to access this global market to be able to take advantage of a neoliberal economy and in that way reach development, is in my eyes comparable to the idea of development through Big Data and its potential problems and risks. So if, within liberalism, the market is the salvation, in this new, algorithm-driven ideology, Big Data has taken the markets place, as Harari writes.

I find this to be reflected in an interview with Leonida Mutuku, a Kenyan entrepreneur, and TWAS Fellow Tshilidzi Marwala from South Africa in which they answer the question “What is the interest of developed countries to help developing countries acquire the capacity to use big data?”. Mutuku’s answer is Developed countries are large aid donors to developing countries. Big data use in poor countries helps them move towards self-sustainability and less reliance on donor funding through proper planning and use of resources at their disposal. Secondly, with improved economic conditions for developing countries as a result of big data use, new markets or opportunities for trade partnerships open up. The concern is that developed countries are pushing developing countries to collect better data for self-serving purposes.” And Marwala answers “New markets are essential for developed countries. Unlocking the economic activities of developing countries makes business sense for developed countries (twas.org).” Firstly, I react to the question itself and how it is focused on developed countries. Secondly, both answers seem to follow the liberal logic that has defined how the world, as well as social development, have been seen, defined and constructed. Only now with new terminology.

As Spratt and Baker (2016) claims, “the possibility of most developing countries being able to build successful companies in the big data world appears remote, as they would simply be unable to compete with incumbent firms”, and as Read, Taithe and Mac Ginty (2016) writes, there is a risk that data technology becomes a system which replicates and reinforces the existing power holders and as such it would not create a world in which everyone has equal access. To me this critique reflect the problems and consequences we have seen in a liberally driven world.

Read, Taithe and Mac Ginty (2016) also conclude that “the new aspiration towards hubristic big data processing is just another step in the same modernist process of the production of statistical truth”. When taking the Harari’s article into consideration, I wonder if it is not even bigger than that. That it is the recreation of a neoliberal myth of a (discriminatory) system based on numbers in which numbers (or algorithms) are the salvation. With the only difference being that they are now focused on data instead of economy. A system that falsely claims that everyone can join and benefit from it, and that creates an idea in which the “invisible” and as such, inevitable, powers remove the responsibility for discrimination and inequalities from people to data instead.

Harari, Yuval Noah (October 7, 2016). Does Trump’s Rise Mean Liberalism’s End? http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/does-trumps-rise-mean-liberalisms-end

Jerven, M. 2013: Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled By African Development Statistics and What To Do About it. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Read, R., Taithe, B., Mac Ginty, R. 2016: Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology, Third World Quarterly, forthcoming.

Spratt, S,. Baker, J 2016: Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options. Brighton: IDS.

TWAS – The World Academy Of Sciences, (17 October 2016) Big data: a road to development. http://twas.org/article/big-data-road-development

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