Big-data hubris makes us lose sight of real people

It was bad enough when workers were first labeled “human resources.” It became even more disturbing with the more recent term, “human capital” … as if the many individuals who work for any one company amount to little more than numerical entries in a vast, digital ledger somewhere.

Now, the dizzying advances in big data and analytics are making it easier every day to categorize human beings — their online browsing histories, purchasing histories, search habits and responses to carefully calculated web-based stimuli, positive or negative — as little more than data points on a vast spreadsheet. Minuscule blips in a database. A rounding error, even. And when that starts becoming habitual, strange and worrisome things can happen.

Things like militarized “social science” that, with the vast amounts of data now at its disposal, can comfortably characterize social movements and public-led demands for change as “social contagions.”

Things like Facebook’s — and academia’s — recent study of the impacts of positive or negative “emotional contagion,” conducted on nearly 700,000 online subjects without their knowledge or acquiescence.

And things like Facebook data scientist Andrew Ledvina’s description of “all of this hubbub over 700K users like it is a large number of people.”

In the real world where people still daily participate in one-on-one, face-to-face personal encounters and expect to be treated as unique individuals, that comment comes off as extraordinary hubris and conceit. In the real world, 700K (700,000) people is a mind-bogglingly large figure. It’s thousands of times greater than Dunbar’s number, the theoretical limit (estimated at anywhere from 100 to 250) on the number of people with whom any one individual can maintain stable social relationships.

In a less abstract realm, it’s a far greater number of customers than many small-business owners could ever hope to serve. And it’s way more than the greatest number of students even the most dedicated and hard-working teacher could expect to personally work with in a real-world, physical classroom over a lifetime.

It’s only in the rarefied air of today’s massive online social networks and equally massive global corporations that anything that affects 700,000 people could be described as a tempest in a teapot.

When a scientific research project messes with the head of even one person unknowingly, and without his or her approval, it is a very big deal. And when 70 or 7,000 or 700,000 people speak out publicly, rally in groups or sign petitions in an effort to change things they believe should be changed, it’s not a “contagion.”

The day you lose sight of the fact that those 70 or 7,000 or 700,000 datapoints represent living, breathing, individual human beings who could be someone’s sister, son or neighbor — that is, someone with rights and responsibilities equal to your own — is the day you start down a very slippery and dangerous slope.


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