Archive August 2013
|Updating Craziness and Madness
There is a fifty-year
publishing anniversary that needs celebration. It has to do with the meaning of
insanity and related terms. Our use of language in every day conversation—in
novels, movies, newspapers, TV, and on the Internet—changes the meaning of terms
from the past. Take the trio of insanity, craziness and
madness. Those three ideas have been around since we’ve had language,
and one day someone will find from big data on the development of language, that
one reason we acquired language was to keep tabs on people who the community
thought weren’t quite right in the head.
It has been 50 years since
the Kesey novel One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released. That makes it a good time to revisit and
ask questions about how insanity, craziness and madness remain powerful and
effective tools to protect state power and authority.
The film based on Ken
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, won five Oscars. The book and
film struck a chord with the Academy and filmgoers. McMurphy could be any of us
who pushed back against authority. McMurphy, a criminal in the prison system
with a relatively short sentence to serve, thought he was clever in gaming the
system by being transferred from prison to a mental hospital. He challenged the
power of the head nurse. What he discovered that he was inside a system that
could keep him indefinitely and no law, no institution, no authority could
prevent the head nurse or her staff from using the full range of ‘treatments’
(in the name of medical science) to break him (or from their point of view, cure
If you are
anti-authoritarian, then you run the McMurphy risk of being labeled insane,
rebellious, and troublesome. You go on a list. Nothing that you can do as
McMurphy found out will prevent the authorities from carrying out a lobotomy. At
the end of the story, the Chief sees what they’ve done to McMurphy whose
unresponsive face is a testament to the power of the State who employ the words
‘insanity’, ‘craziness’ and ‘madness’ with the precision of drones.
Insanity is both a legal
and medical term. Madness and craziness are ordinary, common usage to describe
abnormal mental acts of another person. Political correctness has erased
insanity, madness and craziness and instead discussions that would have used
‘insanity’ now refer to ‘mental disorders.’
Science has dispatched
madness and craziness to the old world of magic, herbal cures, and shaman
trances. Science has replaced the local shaman with doctors, nurses, scientists,
and psychiatrists. That has been called progress and a victory over superstition
and backwardness. In the 50 years since the novel was published, science hasn’t
been successful in changing the attitude, nature, and emotions of mankind. In
1963, the medical workers, in the name of ‘science’, doomed McMurphy. Science
acted then, as it does now, as a good cover for those in power to legitimatize
the repression of people like McMurphy.
It is difficult to say
what is more dangerous—the old witchdoctor non-scientific approach, or the new
science, medical approach. A person’s liberty should stand on magical thinking
of superstitious people. It is cruel and senseless and barbaric. Has science has
put an end to the era of witchdoctors? Many people are doubtful. The history of
insanity correlates not as one would wish with the developments in science. The
idea that science brings progress and the ways of a superstitious people are
left in the past. What we are discovering is that science is creating better
tools for lobotomy for critics and opponents. Insanity, craziness, and madness
become mud-slinging words hurled against the rise of new ideas, philosophies,
Don’t forget that at the
end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest it was Nurse Ratchet who won. In
2013 we have a new cast of Nurse Ratchet’s and McMurphy’s and every indication
that the outcome will be the same as it was in 1963.
Remember the bottle thrown
from the plane in the Gods Must Be
Whenever a tribe comes in contact with an unknown technology, instability of the
existing system of belief and thought starts to list like an oil tanker that’s
rammed a reef. Soon the peaceful tribe is racked with high emotions such as
hatred and envy and violence follows as the hotheads arm themselves to control,
own, and monopolize the novel invention. At the end of this 1980 film the hero
Xi throws the bottle over a cliff and returns to his village.
But the days when the hero
could return the world to its pre-bottle ways is over.
What is new is not a
bottle thrown from a plane, but the Big Data quietly culled, stored, and
analyzed into marketing, economic policy, and dissent suppression. That bottle
won’t be thrown over a cliff. It is here in the village to stay. New tools to
spot and isolate (or control) the ‘hostile disruptions’ increase the reach to
track and watch people who are ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’. Though you will be
less likely to see those terms used. As insanity has been tainted by the long
history of loose standards, terrorism has been copied and pasted in places where
insanity, madness and craziness were commonly found.
The mental health issue
always has risked being politicized into a campaign to reduce violence, and
maintain security and order. We don’t have to look very far back in history
before we stumble upon the inconvenient truths about state authorities using
mental health as a method of repression and control.
A list of from the Reasons
for Admission used by Trans-Allegheny Lunatic
1864 to 1889 gives an idea of the range of thinking and acts that landed you in
the bunk next to McMurphy. These 19th century reasons describe the
mental state or behavior of a person before being admitted to the asylum. From
the 1963 film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a case could be made
that much on the list below had survived well into the 20th century.
A case can be made that dressed up in different terms, the list will still be
sufficient to catch the 2013 version of McMurphy.
Business nerves and bad
company along with brain fever, sexual derangement, dissolute habits and women
trouble could fit about 90% of the writers I have met over the years. The
reasons associated with the definition of crazy may explain why many people view
writers, painter, dancers and others as belonging under the big tent of art as
crazy or insane. The point is people who don’t wish to or are incapable of
fitting into morality and norms of their society are by definition
psychologically abnormal and their alternative way of living might be further
evidence of abnormality. Religious or ideological fanatics see other
non-believers as abnormal. Our technology hasn’t updated the definition, only
the power and capability of tracking people who fit one of the categories, of
The clear and present
danger of the concept of Insanity that finally caught up with
McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been summarized: a term
that “may also be used as an attempt to discredit or criticise particular ideas,
beliefs, principals, desires, personal feelings, attitudes, or their proponents,
such as in politics and religion.”
In 2013 would McMurphy’s
outcome have been any different? Have the last 50 years with all of our advance
technology given us better outcomes? Or are we still back at the gate of
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic asylum, where McMurphy is put out of his misery and the
Chief’s only hope is to escape as fast as one can from the clutches of
repressive power. There is a big difference. In 1963 escape was an option. In
2013, Nurse Ratchet’s forces would find the Chief and he would end up like
Whether you identify with
the Chief or McMurphy doesn’t matter. It is Nurse Ratchet’s world. One Flew
Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a warning unheeded. We live in the shadow of the
Reasons for Admission to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. As ‘novel reading’
is one of the grounds for admission, you’ll forgive me if I put on my track
shoes and go looking for where the Chief has gone to ground.
|Digital Tracking of Corruption
The website www.bribespot.com is devoted to citizens from around
the world who complain that state authorities have demanded bribes to overlook
infractions of the law or as an additional, informal condition to receiving a
benefit or service. Corruption can occur around the edges of a political system,
or may have developed as part of the culture.
Here’s a recent example of
a posting from Thailand by a motorist who paid Baht 200 ($5.00) to the
Lane Rama IV Road, near Bangkok University, direction Theptarin
They: 6-8 Police, most likely from Tha Rua Station were waving “all”
motorbikes to stop. 2 were blocking left+middle lane.
Officer: You were not driving as req on the left lane but in the middle
lane & showed me a plastic home-made-menu-pricelist lamented sheet with a
list of all offenses & their prices. On the list: Driving in Middle Lane =
Me: But how can I be on the left lane, if u guys are blocking it and I
need to swap to the right lane to make a U-turn? Shall I fly over?
Officer: Give me 400thb or u go police station & this take long
Me: opening the purse and taking out 200 thb and telling him I not pay
more than 200thb (had a meeting and was in rush).
Officer: literally pulling my 200thb out of the purse and saying: Now you
Q: Is it illegal to drive in the middle lane to change lanes? Only in
Thailand. Police Officers I guess, they fly over the middle lane.”
It is useful to start with
an understanding of what corruption means. Corrupt or corruption derives from
the Latin corruptus meaning to abuse or destroy. Corruption manifests
on several scales:
1) petite scale –
when bribery in the form of small gifts and personal favours and is tolerated
within the larger normative values of the community;
scale – found in regimes run by a narrow circle of plutocrats or tyrants
where the political, social and economic institutions are subverted for the gain
of the tyrants and their cronies;
scale – where process and institutions are weak and are found in a culture
of impunity where state authorities have little or no fear in exacting personal
benefits. The weak institutions indeed may feed and indirectly encourage
corruption by paying a low salary to employees and turn a blind eye when they
supplement their salary through bribes.
Wikipedia has this definition of corruption
in the context of policing:
Police corruption is a specific
form of police misconduct designed to obtain financial
benefits, other personal gain, and/or career advancement for a police officer or
officers in exchange for not pursuing, or selectively pursuing, an investigation
or arrest. One common form of police corruption is soliciting and/or accepting
bribes in exchange for not reporting
organized drug or prostitution rings or other illegal activities. Another
example is police officers flouting the police code of conduct in order to secure convictions of
suspects — for example, through the use of falsified evidence. More rarely, police officers may
deliberately and systematically participate in organized crime themselves.
We will have at some stage
Big Data from sites like www.bribespot.com to see patterns in the behavior of
state officials. It may be that the data will confirm that at the end and start
of the month, and near major holidays that bribe taking increases as officials
are under pressure to pay rents, school fees, or buy gifts. What bribespot.com
relies on is self-reporting. It is difficult to assess how representative of the
problem are the cases that people choose to report. This takes effort to do. I
suspect that most people can’t be bothered to self-report.
The other problem with
corruption reporting is that, by its inherent nature, secretive and
non-transparent, that it is difficult to prove. The motorist says the cop asked
for a bribe, the cop says that is a lie. He said, she said is an eternal loop
and the law mostly favors the police in the case of doubt. People aren’t stupid.
They know that without concrete evidence, they are wasting their time to
complain. And if they complain, police who are corrupt are more likely to
intimidate a whistleblower than non-corrupt police. As the theory goes, once the
cops break one pillar of the law, it is much easier to knock out other pillars
to protect themselves against the law.
August 21st 2013 ran an editorial titled “Corruption is a two-way
street” by blaming the corrupt official and the person paying the
bribe. The editorial concludes that to be effective to stop corruption action
must be taken against the state official and the person paying the
This proposed formula to
solve the problem of corruption in my opinion is fundamentally flawed and fails
to address the underlying causes. It treats all cases of bribery at the same
level—one corrupt state official, one citizen paying the bribe. The illegal
gambling casinos run by state authorities is an example of how corruption is
often a one-way street. In some systems, the corruption is closer to an
expressway rather than a two-way street, with eight-lanes filled with traffic.
That is the problem with thinking of political solutions in terms of metaphors.
They quickly fall apart when the metaphor is expanded to expose the scope of the
problem. The approach championed by the editorial would be as effective as
asking people to drop suggestions into an anti-corruption box.
As we’ve seen in the
categories above, bribery falls into a number of distinct categories, each of
which has special issues and problems that should be addressed.
In the second category,
the Grand Scale, treating the bribe payer in a system of tyrants that act as
rentiers and extractors as wealth and resources as equal to state
officials, is missing the larger issue. It is the nature of how power is
allocated and abused throughout the system. Corruption is a symptom of a much
more fundamental political issue. To focus on the bribe payer is a distraction,
it is irrelevant to finding an overall solution.
The same analysis applies
to the third category, the Institutional Scale, where justice system operates
with weak, highly flawed law enforcement institutions. The state officials act
with impunity. To suggest that the bribe payer is an equal bargaining partner
with such an official neglects the power and authority that can be effectively
employed to compel a target by placing them under duress such as torture,
imprisonment, heavy penalties unless a bribe is paid. To call this a two-way
street would require a radically different view of how streets, rules and
traffic are interconnected.
Thailand falls into the
first and third category. It is a gift-giving culture and bribery is the
slippery slope that gift givers use to glide out of a legal jam or to obtain a
state concession or benefit. Many Thais don’t view the giving of small gifts to
officials as a bribe. The attitude is reflected in the Thai phrase sin
namjai—something like “gifts from the heart.” It is part of being kind and
generous; the gifts give both the gift-giver and gift-receiver face, with the
benefit of oiling the social wheels and keeping them moving. Such a gift-giving
tradition comes from a system of ancient attitudes that worked in a small scale
agricultural based society (which most of Thailand remains).
The problem is the
attitudes are difficult to fit with law enforcement in large populated cities
where more and more people live. In places like Bangkok, the cop isn’t someone
the bribe payer knows and has a long connection to through family as would be in
a village. They are strangers. The giving of the money isn’t an act of kindness
and generosity; it is an act of desperation, made out of fear and anxiety.
The institutions of justice are weak as protection isn’t sought within an
institutional framework but within a network of connections where a patron
provides protection. The state officials are selective in enforcement of laws
depending on the rank and status of the person they ask for money. If that is an
important/influential person, then it is unlikely that a low-ranking state
official will even ask for a bribe.
The same principle extends
to protect the wives, children, relatives and immediate household of people of
power and status. It is not just state officials acting with impunity that is a
sign of weak justice system institutions, one also needs to look at the elites
and ask whether they can act with impunity. If the answer is the police and the
powerful are both immune, but others must comply with the law. Being in that
privileged position there no incentive to create a strong criminal justice as
that would make the powerful vulnerable. Weak institutions which they control
directly or through proxy, can be more easily controlled. The tacit promise of a
political system to keep the elites strong and institutions weak delivers: I’ll
scratch your back, if you scratch mine. And all this back scratching will occur
behind closed doors. It isn’t enough to say ‘don’t pay the bribe’ as that fails
to address the imbalance of the power relationships and the nature of how
impunity is distributed in a political/economic/social system.
Corruption shouldn’t be
viewed only through the lens of cops taking bribes. It involves tea money for
parents to pay to get into a school. Money paid for medical services or for
installation of water, sewer, or electricity. Whenever there is a government
service to be provided, the question is whether the officials administering the
system seek additional payments before authorizing or approving the benefit. If
the answer is yes, it likely follows that such the officials inside that
organization are not only corrupt, and the institution that employs them is weak
and can do nothing to counter the culture of corruption.
Corruption continues to
work because we still live in a small data world. In a few years after the
methods of surveillance
have advanced another technological leap and become prevalent, and
unstoppable, then it will be difficult for state authorities to maintain the
essential secrecy that is the lifeblood of corruption. The Big Data Political
System (BDPS)—the next stage of political evolution—we can expect advanced
computerized system to monitor the behavior and conduct of its human agents and
actors as well as the rest of us.
Our old more, simple world
of free choice is slipping away. Nothing is certain as to our future world will
greet us one morning. It may start with a news report: “A large majority of
people agree with urgent need for preventive detentions and secret
interrogations as a necessary precaution to support our government’s goal to
protect all citizens against terrorism and corruption.” It will use nouns and
not verbs. Actions will be downgraded, potential acts upgraded.
That morning may be sooner
than we imagine. We will kick ourselves for not suspecting that corruption like
terrorism while real, were a great cover for an invisible government to scale up
its own culture, priorities and institutions.
Systematic monitoring may
be sold and bought on the basis it ends corruption. But before you sign on, be
careful for what you wish for. You might be trading one old problem for ten new
problems. The BDPS coming soon to your country may extract a very high price in
terms of liberty and freedom. We may find that we are substituting one culture
of impunity for another. And we may long for the days, that we paid Baht 200 to
a Thai cop who demanded it even though we committed no traffic
Zoos in China are cutting costs by a sleight of hand trick. In a Chinese privately run zoo called “People’s Park” in the eastern city of Louhe, the sign on the front of a cage says the animal inside is an African Lion. When Ms. Lui’s six-year son asks her why the “African Lion” barks like a dog, she’s put in a curious position.
Tibetan Mastiff pretending to be an African Lion
A zookeeper said the real African lion was unavailable being sent away for breeding. So the zoo may have had no choice. The A world without choice is a phony, impoverished world trying to be authentic and rich and failing at both. How do you explain political/economic theory that forces consumers to accept one animal as equivalent to another in order to cut the zoo’s operational costs to a six-year-old child?
African Lion playing himself
Another cage in the same zoo labeled “Snakes” had a couple of rats scurrying around hoping to be mistaken as snakes. The Telegraph went on to report: “There was another dog in the wolf cage, while some foxes were standing in for the leopards.”
It is bad enough for animals to play themselves in captivity for human entertainment. Having to pose as other animals must be confusing and humiliating. It’s sad that the zoo had no choice. But even sadder are people who have no knowledge of choice when they are seized by a negative feeling.
Many novels are like this Chinese zoo. In reading a novel, one of my foremost pleasures is finding an author who examines interior mental processes of the characters. Giving the characters an authentic inner life is difficult. Fiction without great characters will disappear quickly from mind. How does a writer go about capturing the complexity of a character’s mind?
It is as difficult to understand another’s emotional reactions to daily problems—someone cuts in front of you in a queue, insults your intelligence, a taxi refuses to stop for you, you’ve lost your keys, or passport, or can’t remember your passwords. These are examples of banal annoyance that teaches us lessons about ourselves to ourselves. The question is whether a character is open to lessons about his or her feelings. Our feelings expose us to others in powerful ways that leave our ideas far behind. In a memorable novel it is clear the characters also share our frustrations, defeats, our sense of alienation. We want to know if they think about their feelings, and if so how does that change the way they are in the world.
We look for something beyond sharing. For example, we won’t like a character who is a Tibetan Mastiff pretending to be an African Lion and not admitting to the lie. But if he is lying and we as readers know what factors in his life against which he’s struggling in his quest to continue the deception or overcome it, we’d be very interested to know what has caused that ‘African Lion’ to bark like a dog.
Like the six-year-boy at the Chinese Zoo, we would question the dog-like nature of the lion. We’d turn the pages to find out how others in the story will react to this lie and deal with the situation. Will they share the delusion that the dog is a lion? Are you as the reader supposed to share that delusion? Page after page, we search for how a character life interest has brought him to this juncture. This point. This cage. What transformations did he experience along the way? What conjunction of events led him to crawl into that cage and take the attitude of something he knew was a lie?
I’ve been reading Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life. The book is part patient case study and part memoir written by a British psychiatrist. Psychiatrists make a living in getting patients to understand what in their past relationships and upbringing caused them to bark like a dog when they are pretending to be a lion. A good novelist does something similar in the creation of memorable characters. The profile of the author’s tea with an old friend in London revealed the process required before a closed mind opened. And it is in the opening of a mind that had been shut off to oneself that hold our interest. The story is a good example of how a character’s self-knowledge is what makes his story memorable, and why I am writing about it here. The books we treasure and return to increase our self-knowledge by learning the techniques others have used to gain self-knowledge.
Dr. Grosz’s friend, a famous radio personality, who suffered from depression and isolation, described himself as negative, always looking for a flaw, a fault, or a reason to criticize another person. Indeed he introduced the author to a new word: captious. The friend defined ‘captious’ to mean someone who noticed and expressed displeasure over trivial issues. Each transaction or event registered as a victory or a defeat. He was talking about himself being not just critical but petty critical. The author asked him if he thought the analysis over a number of years had been helpful. The friend replied that he hadn’t resolved that issue but he was more ‘aware.’
His self-awareness gave him a feeling of choice at the moment he felt annoyed or upset. He could examine the feeling prior to reacting. He could permit himself the right to feel that it was his anger that was making him critical. Projecting the anger onto another as a defect in them, rather than something coming from inside himself. He no longer had to accept that the triggered emotion would automatically take control over his reaction. Instead, he could observe the source of his feeling and ask: where was it coming from? Was the source internal or external or mixed up?
What mattered was the self-knowledge that he had a choice when he experienced negative feelings. Without choice he’d lived without freedom in the truest sense of the word. To be ‘unfree’ is to be without choice. In that world of non-choice, you enter a cycle triggered by criticism because you believe you have no other choice and lapse into guilt for your conduct. He also could reflect on his years of therapy when he thought of about his feelings. And that made him feel less lonely.
No noir story will match
the ones told by Big Data. In the future, noir stories will emerge from Big Data
only it won’t be fiction. Authors of crime fiction, noir, hardboiled, or
otherwise, are like monks writing manuscripts before the printing press. Our end
will be as noir as their end. Here’s the story of how that will come
I’ve thought of writing as
a way to discover and explore vanishing points, light fading to the void of
total darkness. That is the point where we can no longer predict what will
happen next. It is a brick wall. A blank. We stop at the door to the future and
are resigned it will never open.
Data: A Revolution, the authors Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger and Kenneth Cukier
have opened that door a crack. But don’t buy this book. You don’t seriously want
to know what is inside our near future in the Data-Time-Space
Towards the end of this
provocative book, the authors sum up: “The ground beneath our feet is shifting.
Old certainties are being questioned. Big data requires a fresh discussion of
the nature of decision-making, destiny, justice.”
That is only the beginning
of the transformation that will happen in our life time. It is already
happening, it’s started to come into the open. The huge weight and force of Big
Data and the hunger of power to own it, share it, distribute it, and exploit it.
We are in the middle of that big data war. Government officials and big business
owners are in their bunkers figuring out what to do next. No one has explained
clearly what is at stake, the options, or the current state of play. Big
Data, A Revolution attempts to provide context and meaning in an era where
data is no longer scarce or expensive, but readily available and infinitely
valuable in making predictions about future outcomes.
attitudes, and mental states will be predicted with an advanced probability
software and hundreds of millions equations—and that raises a number of
It is happening now as you
read this essay. You are the composite of your data; your choices, likes,
purchases, friends, emotional connections, and routine have been datafied. This
data of your past can’t be erased, deleted or changed; it will follow you
wherever you go into the future. The days of starting over are finished.
You can never go missing or disappear completely as you pull behind
yourself a history that is your digital DNA.
Your mental thumbprint is
now in the system and attached to this blog. It stopped there. Who else who has
ever read this blog is an association? That data is stored in the system.
Websites, blogs are hovered for information, and this how Big Data continues to
grow four time faster than America’s G.N.P. There is a probability that
your digital presence here means that you may share certain habits, buying
traits, or be connected to some free thinking troublemakers who also visit this
You can no longer control,
handle, supervise or understands the scale and scope of your data or the Big
Data. But we have seen nothing yet. Big Data is set to grow exponentially. Some
of that will be extremely useful in understanding and dealing with important
problems like climate change, curing diseases, or advancing entire domains such
as physics, chemistry, and mathematics. The assumption is that our understanding
of the world, describing it, predicting it is a limitation on quantification of
To fully exploit the
potential of big data we need to appreciate the scale and scope of the power
that comes from collecting, storing, distributing, selling and analyzing the
range of correlations that emerge when N=All. We will also pay a substantial
price. Big Data is not ours without some long-standing beliefs, habits,
attitudes and customs being changed. The next stage of development are data.
They are being built from masses of data as you read this essay. Real economic,
social and political owner will reside inside them.
Since the thirteenth
century, we have searched for answers about the world and behavior that are
precise and exact, and we seek out causation between events, people, and things.
Our quest is to know if what we believe about the world is true or false, right
or wrong, good or bad—we bring our moral and emotional sense of being in the
world in the cross-hairs when we address the implications of Big
Big data works not off
exactness; it is premises that reality is messy and the data can provide a
probability of what will emerge in the future. Big data promises a set of
predicted outcomes according to a scale of probability based on what will likely
happen. In turn, we give up the mission to understand why something has happened
or may happen. The ‘why’ question is one that asks about causes to explain what
is the nature of the world. Big Data leaves causation to the side because it is
not helpful. The messiness of reality renders inquires about causation and
precision less reliable. These ideas spring from an the old way of thinking when
sense had to be made out of limited information and data. Causation and
precision are relics of data scarcity and can be largely ignored as correlation
is sufficient in the world of Big Data. Limited or Little Data required us to
formulate a theory about what we’d expect the Little Data to prove, and then we
used the Limited Data to test as to whether it had proved or disproved the
theory. Think of climate change and theory of CO2 concentrations as the cause.
That’s the old way of using Limited Data modeling.
Randomness in large big
data gives a probability analysis that is more useful and predictive than a
targeted, sample size of data. Sampling of data, the default measurement of the
world, has become or will very soon become obsolete. Those conducting the data
gathering in the past lacked the tools (processing speed, storage facilities,
etc) to collect big data and the tools (software and algorithms) to analyze such
vast quantities of data. They opted for precision, sampling, and theory testing.
This old paradigm goes out the window with big data in many cases. With the full
dataset offered by big data, researchers can explore many more angles and
perspectives whether it is predicting the next bird flu outbreak or match fixing
in sumo wrestling matches in Japan.
Big data has the capacity
to scale entire populations of a city, region or country. Now when all telephone
calls, emails, Internet searches, Twitter mentions and retweets, and Facebook
‘likes’ are captured and stored, this isn’t a sampling; it is the whole
enchilada. “[W]e can accept some messiness in return for scale. ‘Sometimes two
plus to two can equal 3.9, and that is good enough.’”
We already have an example
of the limits of our capacity when tested against advanced algorithms. There are
chess algorithms that are used once the computer has six or fewer pieces left on
the board and allows the computer to processes the probability for
every possible move (N=all). The Big Data authors conclude,
“No human will ever be able to outplay the system.”
We have created a big data
system that is much better at making predictions about outcomes than we can make
using our native brain power. We humans have dropped down in the league ranking
of the best, fastest brain processing capacity in the world. In coming up with a
translation program, Google didn’t test a billion words, they used a trillion.
Its services cover 60 languages and are more accurate than other systems. It
won’t be long until computer translations, like playing chess, will perform
vastly better than any human being.
Big Data also
demonstrates the transition in thinking between viewing the reality of the world
as not only messy but one in which predictions of what will happen rest on
correlations that emerge from big data. Amazon has recommendations for you. Each
time you visit Amazon they remember your digital history and present you will
the kind of books that from your prior purchases indicate you are a ‘reader of
interest’. One-third of Amazon’s business is from buyers like you who
click on and buy the recommended purchase. For Netflix the percentage of online
rentals that come from a recommendation is seventy-five percent of all the
Amazon and Netflix offer
two good examples of how using probability tools can increase the revenue of a
company. There is no certainty that you will buy the recommended book on Amazon
or rent the recommended film online from Netflix, but you can see the
probability makes the effort pay off in rich rewards for both
Big Data can’t tell Amazon
why you buy a particular title. Indeed it is not interested in the why
question; it is focused on what you are likely to buy given your past purchases
and searches through their catalogue of books. The data opens up links that are
also useful. A secondary use of the same big data may show that California
international crime fiction readers are more probable to book a ticket to
Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Bangkok, and targeting them with discounted fares
may increase sales. The big deal about Big Data is that it has the potential for
multi-uses, and many of those uses only become apparent much later. That’s one
reason why storing data for long periods is in the interest of business and
governments, and they will fight to keep this option; they want indefinite
storage as they can’t predict what future technical and social dynamics might
arise and they want all of the cards, old and new, on the table.
We were born into an
information poor world. Our beliefs, political and social structures, our
science and education were created out of a small sampling of the information
about the world. We’ve spent our life making decisions, forming opinions and
making judgments based on limited data giving us precise, exact answers as to
the state of the world and each other. We are wired to look for causation. In
the big data world we are told this is delusion. There is no math that can
easily show causal links; but correlations are easily translated into
Big Data, the
book, looks at the risk of big data as it presents a real “risk [of] falling
victim to a dictatorship of data.” While Amazon uses algorithms to recommend
books, lawn mowers, watches, and clothes to you, there is the potential for
repression if the gathering, storage, use and distribution is left to be carried
out in secret. We don’t know the limits that push back against the collection
and use of Big Data. In a generation, people will look back and see our time as
the tipping point when we lost privacy. The big data world will continue to
strip away the possibility of privacy. Privacy existed because of the messiness
of information, it’s limited nature and the expense and difficulty of collecting
information about the world. You once had the power to divulge personal
information. In the average day, you willingly and largely unknowingly disclose
pieces of data about yourself—your likes, dislikes, activities, friends,
purchases, health, schooling, and plans. We’ve uploaded our life onto the common
Big Data network, a small fragment at a time, and by doing so we are forfeiting
our own privacy. Privacy as we know it will vanish.
Crime and punishment will
change as will opinions about proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and presumption
of innocence. If big data can show a correlation between a person’s big
data/information file that he has, say, a 79% chance of committing rape or
murder within the next three years, will the state make a decision that a
‘probable perpetrator’ should be removed from society in order to protect
society? The state would hold this person not because he’s committed a crime but
the prediction is high that he will commit the rape or murder in the future.
Many people may feel that with a high probability that the state should
intervene and prevent the harm from happening.
The Big Data
authors find that “the very idea of penalizing based on propensities is
nauseating.” The future causes a sense of vertigo. It doesn’t share our values,
our thinking, or account for difference between potential actions and the real
thing. The authors fall back on the premise that it isn’t the problem of big
data but the way we will use the predictions. The irony is the book is a call to
loosen our fixation on causation and theories, and to learn to embrace messiness
and predictability. When push comes to shove on preventive detentions, the
authors retreat back into the world of causation and find decisions based on
predictions ‘nauseating’. My view is once we jettison causation in the big data
world, the use of predictions won’t be easily caged inside Amazon and Netflix’s
world of recommendations. The data will get bigger, the prediction more
accurate, and once that happens ‘assigning’ guilt based on a person’s
particular act will appear as another example of medieval thinking.
An important takeaway from
Big Data is, “In the era of big data, however, when much of data’s
value is in secondary uses that may have been unimagined when the data was
collected, such a mechanism to ensure privacy is no longer suitable.” The debate
we will soon have is what is the continuing role of human agency in deciding
individual responsibility for actions. Another part of that debate will be
whether the decisions of big data will ultimately be made by machines. Humans
will likely never fully understand or control the moves any more than an
international grand master of chess in a game against Big Blue. Time moves on as
does the debate; and the tools continue to improve, faster processors, larger
memory capacity, better algorithms, and we wake up one day to find that
“rational thought and free choice” are no longer part of a world that we
The data story doesn’t end
with Big Data. There is no endgame as has always been the case with new
technologies. Each innovation seems so incredible that we can’t imagine an
improvement Remember the Beta cassettes? Our current technologies for Big
Data will look like Beta cassettes in 5 to 10 years. Probably much sooner. As
the period of change has accelerated from centuries to decades to years and
looks ready to upend existing technologies in months. This period is a prelude
to a much bigger transition in humanity’s quest to understand the world, and our
place in it. We have gone “from compass and sextant to telescope and radar to
today’s GPS.” Compared to the promise of what lies in our immediate future, our
existing technologies to harness Big Data will be judged by future generations
as closer to finger painting a horse on a cave wall.
Buy Big Data and
give it to someone you want to give a freight load of sleepless nights. My
predictions about scale and scope of big data, what will replace it, and how we
will change our values and attitudes as a result, are beyond what we now know.
It seems that all bets are off that this transition will be easy or smooth.
Adjust to the fact that others will have infinitely greater information about
you than you can ever imagine. You have become datafied. You can’t shake free,
you can’t hide, you can’t go missing, and you can’t even hold your own
The founder of Amazon has
bought The Washington Post. Will the owner use the newspaper to suggest
recommendations to politicians and others as to what policies, regulations and
laws are the ones they should adopt? Will somewhere between one-third and
seventy-five percent of The Washington Post click on and download those
recommendations into their memory? The sale of the Washington Post is
not just another sale of a newspaper to someone who is very rich, it is the sale
of the newspaper to one of the founders of the new paradigm of gathering and
distributing information. It is as if the owner of printing press bought a
failing monastery and scribes writing manuscripts. You know that change is
You’d be a fool to bet
against the odds that one morning you we wake up to the fact that you live
inside a data panopticon and there is anyway out. Not heard of
panopticon? Get use to seeing more reference to that word. It is the prevailing
metaphor of our time.