Big Data, Big Issues

The Perils of Progress

With the words, "we are living in a data explosion," a video introduced the recent exhibition Big Bang Data in London. "Data gets us from A to B, it buys us the things we want, quantifies our friendships, can make or break our love lives," it continues, suggesting that the internet is the answer to an ever growing number of desires and questions in our lives. But as this exhibition and other critical voices have suggested, this brave new world also comes with dangers and pitfalls. One outspoken critic is Andrew Keen, whose book on the matter is titled simply and clearly: The Internet is Not the Answer.

Technological innovation in itself is certainly neither good nor bad. As the software provided by Shorthand to power stories like this one shows best: the internet provides the landscape for innovation and ideas to grow and change our lives in positive ways. But critical voices should not be overlooked or brushed aside as unjustified sceptics and spoilers. Like every period of significant rupture and change throughout history, the data-evolution we are witnessing is in urgent need of a stronger ethical and critical backbone. 

Suspicion about the seeming freedom of the current internet has also been voiced by researchers and anthropologists, among them Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford, who write that the ecosystem around Big Data creates a new kind of digital divide: "the Big Data rich and the Big Data poor." Inequality has become an essential part of the system that creates, stores and makes data accessible. Tech giants like Google are creating what some call an "intellectual monopoly," as universities' best brains are hired to work with their exclusive access to privately harvested data to produce scientific results which are often not shared publically if they are profitable.

Anthropologists like Daniel Miller have been at the forefront of research into the diverse ways in which the digital world shapes people, but also of how people of different backgrounds shape the internet through their participation. Anthropology has long insisted that people's characters, conceptions and behaviour are socially and culturally constructed. The Internet, as an alternative space of consumption, production and social interaction is an increasingly influential space where the future divisions and similarities between people are being formed. And the political and economic rules and structures that govern this space called Internet deserve our critical attention.

Free labour, Free power

What if we see the work behind this text as free labour without appropriate returns. It is certainly voluntary, but as such it is also unpaid. I do not get paid to write it, and you do not get paid to share it. Yet someone profits from the masses of data generated by our voluntary input into search engines, social networks and publishing platforms. Although we seemingly produce for one another in this free "gift-economy," it all adds up to very large profits and increasingly centralised power in the hands of large digital monoliths like Facebook or Google, which are building a data monopoly. With every entry, click and share we feed information into their digital system which includes huge global advertising machines. And it provides the basis for their corporate research on new fronts, such as Artificial Intelligence, which needs large intelligent data sets to 'learn' from.

Hence it is no surprise that there is an ongoing investigation by the European Union into Google's "search monopoly," which appears as important as it is contradictory: Google's dominance is "self-reinforcing" because the more it grows the more useful it becomes for those who use it, "as well as ever more impossible to avoid". Even TheEconomist, usually first to underline libertarian values and the profits of technological progress, writes in a special report on data, social media and politics:

"Only two groups of actors are sure to have good access to social-media and other types of internet data. One is the online-giants, such as Facebook and Google, which know much more about people than any offcial agency does and hold all this information in one virtual place. (...) The other groups of actors are governments, particularly the authoritarian kind."

This may well have huge political implications for future access, usage and utilisation of the data we all voluntarily generate. Yet another problem at hand is even more simple: if the value of corporate data monopolies has been generated by our free labour and the growth and information we thereby provide, these profits do no longer lead to large-scale employment and the drizzling down of wealth to the ordinary people. In a simplified way, we may say that the digital companies and their value grow through the free and voluntary participation of the crowd. Do not take me wrong: we all benefit from Google, AirBnb, Uber, Amazaon and Facebook. But the question remains what all this means for society and economy now and in the foreseeable future. As The Guardian put it:

"The wider problem is that Google has become the ultimate monopolist of the information age. Information is a source of power, and nothing in the EU's case does anything significant to touch that power."
Andreas Hackl (Big Bang Data exhibition)

"The Hurricane from Silicon Valley"

Another criticism of the current internet-based economy has been the destruction it caused elsewhere. From Andrew Keen's book we learn that Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in April 2012, when it only had thirteen full-time employees. An average coffee shop has more employees than that. "So who, exactly, is doing the work, providing the labor, in a billion-dollar startup that employed only thirteen people?" asks Keen, answering: “We are.”

One may say that this is progress, and that it is inevitable; that we all benefit more than we suffer from this "revolution". But it is still important to understand what is at stake, and Keen provides one compelling answer to this question. His work should inspire researchers and particularly anthropologists to look deeper into the political and economic characteristics of the Internet, and to do so quickly.

In one example, Keen compares the once-upon-a-time giant Kodak with Instagram. The “Instagram Moment” has not only created new possibilities of photo sharing but also caused destruction, however involuntarily. Around the same time when photo sharing has become ubiquitous, Kodak closed thirteen factories and 130 photo labs and cut 47,000 jobs in a failed attempt to safe itself from bankruptcy. Having employed 145,000 people by 1989 when first revolutionary breakthroughs shaped the Internet to come, Kodak was left with no more than 8,500 employees in 2013.

The Kodak moment was over.

Meanwhile, Instagram hosted 16 billion photographs with over 55 million daily uploads in 2013. The “Hurricane from Silicon Valley,” as Keen calls it, had caused havoc and shaped an internet economy in which we all produce profit voluntarily, not only offering data and free labour, but also strengthening companies that have become seemingly unbreakable monopolies. The wealth doesn't "trickle down because digital goods require so few people to make them, and digitally organised workplaces require fewer people to run them," writes the New Statesman.

Well, progress is progress, one may say. And new technologies have led to transformations throughout history, at times creating new jobs and at other times making them obsolete. But Keen's critique is not of the blunt progress-denial kind. He is an insider who is equally dependent on his Smartphone, as he explained when discussing his research at last year's book festival in Edinburgh, which I had the pelasure to attend. It would be convenient to dismiss his arguments. But the deeper one reads into Keen’s analysis and careful reporting, the more convinced one becomes that he is probably right.

Keen’s book also documents the disastrous impact of the "winner-take-all" economy on the music manufacturing business, based on his own experience in the music industry and as a son of a textile manufacturer in Soho London. The gradual destruction of professional creative industries and publishing is also at way in writing, music business, or photography, he argues.

At a time when more and more people do it themselves, sharing their Instagram shots, writing their blogs, and streaming music for free, being an average artist has become especially difficult. Average content drowns in today's internet. Unless, of course, one pays for visibility, such as Facebook Ads. A fierce competition for visibility is hosted and regulated by these monopolies, which tend to push an ever-shrinking 1% of the very best to the surface while drowning most others.

Because most of us are also consumers, we got used to taking the free online-availability of movies, music, and writing for granted; we stream on Spotify or illegally elsewhere. But as one critique writes, 'The more money Spotify makes, the less artists get paid’. Just like Amazon, such services are great for consumers and some traders, but they are terrible for producers, employees and creative artists.


Andreas Hackl (Big Bang Data exhibition)

Now, it is obvious that the "Hurricane from Silicon-Valley" has brought some good and not only bad. As the Big Bang Data exhibition explained: 

"Data can be a force for good – for us and for our society; we can use it as a tool for positive social, environmental and political change."

However, the price we may be paying for an increasingly unregulated and monopolised communication system could be high; Big Bang Data also speaks of "Surveillance Society," arguing that as we go about our online activities, we unwittingly leave a trail of very profitable personal information behind us:

"This data no longer belongs to us and is now being used to fuel a major new economy. Bit corporations buy and sell details about our characteristics and behaviour, commodifying our privacy to be able to sell products back to us."

The real dilemma is that the dangers and benefits of the internet even srengthen one another. On the one hand, "the Web 2.0 was supposed to democratize media and empower those historically without a voice," writes Keen. But as he adds: "It's mostly a gift economy where the only profits are being made by a tiny group of increasingly monopolistic Internet companies." These profits and the monopoly they enable may well help to further democratize the flow of information, with the help of more Apps and "free" software, but that still leaves most power in the hands of the monopolies that drive it. 

Perpetual Interns?

Instead of supporting an economy where professional writers, photographers and musicians can earn a living from what they do best, this gift economy has created an over-abundance of information. It has decreased the value of creative work, and created value from our participatory free labour.

As a blogger, I write a story and hope others will share it because I believe in the ideas it promotes. I use Shorthand Social because it is a powerful tool. However, I post online content for free and hope it will be the next viral story. It is like an internship that never ends. The kind of gift-economy in which writers strive for attention and do creative labour for free is best summarised with Keen's sobering conclusion:

"On the Internet, most of us are perpetual interns."

Indeed, in order to remain visible in this free online community, up-and-coming online magazines and blogs like Transformations remain completely dependent on volunteering and on one or two corporations: Facebook and Google. And they, in turn, generate further profits and data from our participation and consequently increase their monopoly. Just like companies profit from the "free" input of interns, so do they.

Now, I don't think the fact that some individuals make a lot of profits is a problem in itself. But the question remains what potential for more equality and better distribution is lost in such a system. Technological change is moving much faster then the ethical and legal frameworks that should govern and regulate them, including investigations by the European Union.

Andrew Keen argues that "the internet is not the answer". But as researchers and journalists we should rephrase the question, asking what answer do we want the Internet to be and how it can be regulated in ways that create an equal and just system. One important question is both personal and professional: how can we use this information economy in ways that benefit our professional ambitions and reward the creative work we do?

Using the opportunities available critically and carefully may be important so next generations of writers, researchers, photographers and filmmakers will survive in an economy where quality and critique is valued not only by an endless circle of clicks and shares, but also financially: profits for the 99% instead of the 1%.

What about Truth?

If everyone says the truth online, nobody can any longer do so distinctively. If we are all writers, no paying audience is left to pay for it. The over-abundance of information online may well have effects we only begin to grasp, as a recent article by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker suggests.

The article reviewed Michael P. Lynch's book "The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data." The book argues that the era of the fact is coming to an end because the place once held by facts has been taken over by data. If it is true that today, “most knowing now is Google-knowing—knowledge acquired online,” as Lynch writes, we now only rarely discover facts but usually download them. If everything is potentially true and every truth is easily accessible, what truth can continue to stand out in terms of reliability and quality?

We may settle with Jill Lepore’s insight, which reads like a subtle critique of those who blame the internet all too easily:

“Blaming the Internet is shooting fish in a barrel—a barrel that is floating in the sea of history. It’s not that you don’t hit a fish; it’s that the issue is the ocean. No matter the bigness of the data, the vastness of the Web, the freeness of speech, nothing could be less well settled in the twenty-first century than whether people know what they know from faith or from facts, or whether anything, in the end, can really be said to be fully proved.”

Maybe knowing more with less certainty is better than knowing less with much certainty. But the former may also be dangerous and more easily exploited. As The Economist writes in its special report, parties are using personalised data about people in their voting campaigns, targeting voters in ever more personal and effective ways, and governments use social media to track protest movements and crush activist. In democratic countries, the internet has improved participation in decision-making from the bottom-up, but technology also exposes social and political movements to an "unprecedented degree of scrutiny".

The question of who shapes what is considered as "truth" and who has the visibility and access to distribute information effectively is at the heart of the struggle that is to be waged. As researchers and journalists, we cannot merely use the Internet. We must invest more in shaping its rules and power structures. Hence we may ask:

How can we continue to celebrate the opportunities the social internet offers without becoming subservient to the increasingly centralised forces that govern it? What questions do we have to ask before we can talk about the answers we want the Internet to provide?