I heard Geoff Nunberg’s piece on NPR’s podcast and I got to say, although I’m pretty much big dated out from BBC Backstage (in a nice way) I’m in total agreement. Here’s a few key points… Well worth listening to in audio form…
Whether it’s explicitly mentioned or not, the Big Data phenomenon has been all over the news. It’s responsible for a lot of our anxieties about intrusions on our privacy, whether from the government’s anti-terrorist data sweeps or the ads that track us as we wander around the Web. It has even turned statistics into a sexy major. So if you haven’t heard the phrase yet, there’s still time — it will be around a lot longer than “gangnam style.”
What’s new is the way data is generated and processed. It’s like dust in that regard, too. We kick up clouds of it wherever we go. Cellphones and cable boxes; Google and Amazon, Facebook and Twitter; cable boxes and the cameras at stoplights; the bar codes on milk cartons; and the RFID chip that whips you through the toll plaza — each of them captures a sliver of what we’re doing, and nowadays they’re all calling home.
It’s only when all those little chunks are aggregated that they turn into Big Data; then the software called analytics can scour it for patterns. Epidemiologists watch for blips in Google queries to localize flu outbreaks; economists use them to spot shifts in consumer confidence. Police analytics comb over crime data looking for hot zones; security agencies comb over travel and credit card records looking for possible terrorists.
It’s the amalgamation of all that personal data that makes it possible for businesses to target their customers online and tailor their sales pitches to individual consumers. You idly click on an ad for a pair of red sneakers one morning, and they’ll stalk you to the end of your days. It makes me nostalgic for the age when cyberspace promised a liberating anonymity. I think of that famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Now it’s more like, “On the Internet, everybody knows what brand of dog food you buy.”