Big Data & the Future of Critical Thinking

It’s 3:58 on a Friday, I’m having a pretty bad week, and can’t muster the wherewithal to do more work right now. So I am going to sit here with my Joy tea (need some Joy in my life) and my shiny new blog and write about something that I find fascinating: data collection and targeted perspective in the information age. Inspired by the comment thread to this brilliant post.

parents

parents (Photo credit: goto10)

There’s always a lot of talk about how important it is to guard your information online. There are so many people you’d want to keep it from–thieves, the government, retailers, your boss, your parents… Plus, I’m a technologically sophisticated, legally trained individual and I know full well the myriad dangers of putting too much out there. And yet, I opt in to almost every data collection scheme I come across.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go looking for data grabbers that have nothing to do with me otherwise. But if I enjoy a service, I virtually always permit them to share my data anonymously to “make their service better.”  Think Hulu,  Amazon Kindle Store. Netflix. Google products. Phone apps. Et cetera and ad nauseam. I love that technology is advancing to the point where I am increasingly confronted with only the things I enjoy seeing. It’s beautiful! Fun! Interesting! Gratifying! Why shouldn’t I take advantage of what targeted services can do for me? This guy gets me.

Well, there are zillions of reasons why I shouldn’t.

For one thing, how can you guarantee your data is anonymous when it leaves your grasp (or that it will stay so?) You can’t. With enough data, and enough computer power, virtually any set can be traced back to its “anonymous” donor–recently scientists released a study showing they could personally identify anonymous DNA donors with the power of the net.

And another thing, do you know what your data even says about you? Trust me, you don’t. The level of information that a third party with swaths of your prior behaviors can predict about your future behaviors is staggering. We have many laws (and in the U.S. a handy Bill of Rights) to help protect you from the government extrapolating about you based on this information. But what is to keep a multinational corporation from determining your future based on your past? Nothing. Chances are, most of the online resources you use track every single click and keystroke you do–and sometimes they might release it.

In today's society, there's a price to pay for...

In today’s society, there’s a price to pay for critical thinking (Photo credit: cesarastudillo)

There’s also the more philosophical argument–that when you permit yourself to be confronted with only the things you already enjoy, you stunt your personal growth. You fail to encourage critical thinking or creative collaboration with differing perspectives. You splinter your universe into a tiny niche where you and all of your friends are the most important, most correct, most infallible possible patrons. Is this a word we want to live in? Not in the long term. This is why critical thinking is, to my mind, the most powerful skill you can learn. It requires affirmative practice and daily tuning, but once you have it, it won’t matter how “targeted” an argument anyone can throw at you. You’ll be able to evaluate it effectively and make an informed decision about its impact on your life.

I’m still going to opt-in to targeted data collection schemes for services I use. But I hope that I can continue to stretch my critical thinking muscles and not let them atrophy. It’s the best available weapon against the gorgeous and terrifying future.

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One response to “Big Data & the Future of Critical Thinking

  • Mark

    Great post. My friend just left Amex, or rather was given the boot in their latest downsizing, and told me that it’s scary how much information they have on us guys.

    Like you said though, I don’t really mind. I like that there’s some predictive simulation of ‘me’ sitting across a constellation of databases somewhere. It might be useful at some point…

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