“Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom” (Clifford Stoll)

In the previous posts, I have tried to briefly analyze the positive and the negative aspects of big data, after introducing the main concepts around this issue. Here, I would like to drawn my own conclusion, taking into account Evgeny Morozov’s critic to “the folly of technological solutionism” (2013).

As I have tried to outline before, big data are just a tool that can be used in different context and for different purposes. As it is always the case with technological advancements, most times they are neutral per se, but they can be easily turned into a weapon or – on the contrary – a powerful device to deliver a better society. What really matters is therefore the ideology behind the tool, as Julia points out in her post about Liberalism. I would rather talk of Neo-liberalism, which is currently dominating the Development discourse with its focus on economic growth and, crucially, on the ‘calculability’ of its efforts, its effects, in one word of everything.

I’ve found Morozov’s ideas very fitting with the literature assigned for the course and in particular with my own professional experience. In a world that is believed to be more and more “open and connected”, big data are believed to have the potential to make the world “a better place” – two sentences pronounced, not by chance, by the CEOs of two of the most powerful ‘Social Media corporations’, Google and Facebook (Morozov, 2013, p.1).

Blogging has become the new frontier of political activism, in a new marketplace of ideas – where ‘marketplace’, quite ironically, takes back its original significance. We have discussed about the tyranny of the algorithm, but we should specifically talk of the tyranny of the click rate: in every field, including Development – where we must compete with very finite resources and issues that appear somehow distant, the spasmodic research of a growing audience is changing our professions and our world. “Newspapers no longer publish articles that their readers are not interested in,” says Morozov: even if such apocalyptic point of view can be disputed, it is clear that the old ways of doing journalism (and conveying information in general) are not sustainable anymore.

The main problem is that we are not anymore able to question if we can really solve problems just thanks to technology, says Morozov. Even if I don’t personally share the extent of pessimism that is implicit in his words, as a journalist I do worry when Facebook – one of the main sources of information for a big chunk of the population – lets advertisers exclude users by race. As I mentioned in my post before, the risk of listen to ourselves in our eco chambers, the faith towards ‘solutionism’ and ‘Internet-centrism’ has the potential of letting out “the opportunity to err, to son, to do the wrong thing”, which are “constitutive of human freedom” and knowledge (Morozov, 2013, p.6).

While German chancellor Angela Merkel just said that “Internet search engines are distorting our perception” – another catastrophic and simplistic view of technology and its benefits/risks – it is indubitably true that today “you are what you tweet” (Paul and Dredze, 2011). Funny enough, Julia – the other blogger of this collaborative blog – doesn’t have a Twitter account, but still she recognizes the importance and the perils of a polarized discussion about such themes.

Few days ago, Guardian CEO David Pemsel said that Google and Facebook are “all take and no give,” making explicit what many – especially in the journalism field – see as a threat for the journalism values of impartiality and independence, once its advertising revenue model is broken.

Even if I don’t know if I am a “journalist” anymore, I can link this back to my everyday job in the Development field – in particular to climate change. I spend many hours just trying to ‘fit’ what I intend to communicate in the ‘constraint’ imposed by Google and Twitter: using the right hashtag at the right time, the appropriate words and tags in an article, everything is done to follow the flux of big data rather than explore new communicative opportunities. We all hum the same neoliberal song of growth, but here is growing audience rather than economics. However, the dictatorship of the numbers is the same: everything must be measured, and the bigger the number the better – even if this closes the door to other, exciting possibilities.

“The will to improve” through smart technology and (we think) social connection pushed us to believe that everything can be fixed, Morozov argues. However, he – and I – don’t reject technology tout court: as showed before, big data have a huge potential, especially in the health sector – a field I follow closely on a personal and professional level, after my journalistic enquiry about the “Germanic New Medicine”.

My final point, quite in line with Morozov’s stance, is to reject the idea that improved efficiency is always a good thing: we need a place where debates, errors and – ultimately – human nature can collide, and at last flourish.


Reference:

Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything, click here. London: Allen Lane.

Paul, M., & Dredze, M. (2011). You Are What You Tweet: Analyzing Twitter for Public Health. In Proceedings of the Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (pp. 265–272). Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

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2 comments

  1. Very interesting article Ilario and your final point is quite crucial. If we reject the idea of improved efficiency we might finally learn again to thrive through imperfection!