The scandal surrounding the use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytical highlights the perils of Big Data. Alice Wu, a Hong Kong-based Anglican writer, reflects on its more positive elements.
I must begin this post with a disclaimer: I’m totally dependent on communications technology. It’s hard to imagine now what life was like before the Internet, or any of the technological advances achieved in just the last few decades.
And yet, we know that things with great potential for good have correspondingly potentials for bad. All the news stories and images of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg grilled in US congressional hearings last month have been a good reminder of that. Connecting people and communities – what was meant as a platform for inclusiveness, diversity and participation – had not only given way to the filter bubbles that isolate, divide, and imprison us in our own close-mindedness and prejudices; we have been turned into data sets, our privacy “breached” and “harvested” by companies like Cambridge Analytica that feed the degraded and dehumanised forms of “us” to software programs just so that we can actively contribute to ways big data can better predict, pre-empt, influence and control us.
I have no intentions of condemning big data. It has potential to do tremendous public good. The creation, access, and analysis of large datasets aren’t evils. Data science democratisation has made finding answers to very important and the most pressing challenges, like climate change, possible. It’s estimated that we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily.
Despite the best intentions of tech leaders – like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who believes technology should empower, not degrade humanity – we see the creation of a world that bears frightening resemblance to the dystopian world in George Orwell’s in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Trust is broken down. Personal data are “harvested” and “brokered”. Privacy and transparency are afterthoughts. Human beings are enslaved and our preferences dictated to us.
As followers of Christ, we must see that the blatant trivialisation of human beings and the degradation of humanity – the reduction of God’s creations, especially us humankind, created in His image, to mere decimals, and God’s gift to us, free will, to just clicks – have become one of our greatest modern day challenges. We’ve effectively given up ourselves to manipulation by algorithms.
As children of God, we must, as Proverbs 3:21 demands, preserve sound judgment and discernment. In a world where big data has become the modern day “Golden calf”, we must see clearly that trust, community and inclusiveness are offered as its burnt offerings. This worship of quantification – love for numbers above all else – denies that not everything can be counted and fails to recognise that what truly counts cannot always be counted.
A few years back, big data had “shown” us that people use Bible apps to search for personal encouragement, to make a point, and for big ideas. Yet, do we really need big data to tell us that? The human quest for support and meaning (personal encouragement), voice, guidance, wisdom, validation and connection (to make a point), inspiration and purpose (for big ideas) certainly aren’t news at all.
As His disciples, we must see that the “harvest” is, indeed, vast, and labourers are few. Algorithms can’t know people more than our Creator. Algorithms can’t tell us what to think and how to feel. Algorithms can’t dictate human purpose. Algorithms can’t inspire. Our Lord Jesus Christ came so we can have life and have it abundantly. We have important work to do.