Strong opinions, weakly held

How will society adjust to ever-easier data collection?

The New York Times ran two opinion pieces this weekend right next to each other that both stand at the intersection of the how the government and politics work and social change that results from technological change. In the first, Joe Nocera argues that the big question in the resignation of David Petraeus is whether we’re comfortable with the FBI snooping through our email on relatively flimsy grounds:

But the Petraeus scandal could well end up teaching some very different lessons. If the most admired military man in a generation can have his e-mail hacked by F.B.I. agents, then none of us are safe from the post-9/11 surveillance machine. And if an affair is all it takes to force such a man from office, then we truly have lost all sense of proportion.

The second was about what increased use of data in political campaigns means long-term. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been working in the analytics world this year, so this topic is highly relevant to me. It’s also very complicated. On one hand, improving our ability to collect and analyze data enables us to better understand what people want and expect from our products, or, in the case of campaigns, our politicians. On the other hand, combining our more advanced understanding of human behavior with deeper data sets creates the opportunity for more effective manipulation in addition to more effective communication.

While the people creating big data tools may not be evil, the organizations that use them going forward may not agree to the same principles. The big question in both the Petraeus case and in the use of big data by campaigns is that regardless of our level of comfort with the government, campaigns, or companies knowing so much about us, we don’t really have control over the gathering of that information.

1 Comment

  1. There is a short story by Asimov titled Franchise (written in 1955) where presumably the analytics were advanced enough in the future (2008!) that one person was selected to vote and based on that all the results were determined.

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