A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Big data, big apple, big ethics

Next week is a Big Data boon in the Big Apple. There are so many things going on in New York, there’s even a page outlining all the activities in New York Data Week.

I’ve had a fascinating series of discussions on the ethics, civil rights, and economics that stem from a predicted, quantified society. But there’s one event in particular I’m gutted to be missing: the Ford Foundation’s Wired For Change event, which is focused on the power and pitfalls of Big Data.

My Strata co-conspirator Kaitlin Thaney will be part of the who’s-who lineup, which includes folks like Ethan Zuckerman, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Esther Dyson, and Jaron Lanier—and that’s just her panel. Seldom has something made me want cloning so badly.

As I pined over the fact that I’d miss their day-long series of topics, I realized that many of the social justice issues they’re discussing focus on Big Data’s ability to guess (sometimes unfairly) and to harvest (to the point of revealing things you weren’t comfortable sharing.)

Perhaps the biggest threat that a data-driven world presents is an ethical one. Our social safety net is woven on uncertainty. We have welfare, insurance, and other institutions precisely because we can’t tell what’s going to happen — so we amortize that risk across shared resources.

The better we are at predicting the future, the less we’ll be willing to share our fates with others. And the more those predictions look like facts, the more justice looks like thoughtcrime.

I wrote a piece about this on Radar today, from which the above quote is taken. It summarizes some of the issues I’ll be noodling on next week in New York.

Big Data on the brain, indeed.






2 responses to “Big data, big apple, big ethics”

  1. Irina Avatar

    I think your focus on ethics is appropriate, but I’m not sure I agree with the statement that “The better we are at predicting the future, the less we’ll be willing to share our fates with others.” Maybe we’ll realize, instead, that a significant part of what happens to all of us *is* uncertain and out of our control, and that the vast majority of us will have to deal with things like ageing and illness, so that we’ll still have to amortize both risks and near-certainties across shared resources”… For real human beings, “sharing our fates with others” is a given, not an option. (That’s why there are no babies and no old or infirm people in Ayn Rand novels.)

  2. Paweł Avatar

    Indeed, Big Data might be a big challenge to our feeling of privacy