When Is Big Data Too Big?
How is it possible that some world changing events often go unnoticed even when they happen right in front of our eyes? Well, perhaps not exactly unnoticed, but unappreciated as they transpire and only recognized as momentous after the fact once we stop and look back.
I suppose it is like the old story of the boiled frog. According to the story, if you throw a frog in boiling water he will quickly jump out. But if you put a frog in a pan of cold water and raise the temperature ever so slowly, the frog will eventually cook to death without ever waking up to its imminent peril. This boiled frog story illustrates the vulnerability of remaining complacent in your personal life and/or in the publishing marketplace.
I think big data and the related collection of our personal interests, habits, and buying and reading patterns fall into the frog theory. We have known for years of the collection of this data. Some of us have perhaps been involved in the collection itself. Circulators do it, fulfilment houses do it, direct mailers and publishers do it and have done it to a greater or lesser degree for decades.
One can make the argument that big data fine tunes engagement and gives the people what they want, sometimes before they themselves realize that it is what they wanted. We all love the convenience of being able to find the things we want easily. But have we participated innocently and unknowingly in a worrisome intrusion of our private lives? Big data gives the corporate commerce realm exact information about us, which we have no control over. No way to say, "No, I do not wish to be sliced, diced, and fitted into a data jar of personalized performance." If you have enough data points can it be dangerous, if not today, then in the near Big Brother future forecast cast by George Orwell?
Journalist Patrick Tucker wrote an interesting comment on big data in an article titled "The Naked Future." He said, "We will be able to predict huge areas of the future with far greater accuracy than ever before in human history, including events long thought to be beyond the realm of human inference."
The sticky parts of that statement are the "areas" and "events long thought to be beyond the realm of human inference." Are there some areas where "human inference" or in this case personal data collection, is unwanted?
On the positive side, it does seem that big data use in some cases can be as close as having your own corporate wizard in a three-piece suit in the upper corner office accurately predicting the future. What future? Your future actions, of course.
When we look at it strictly professionally we can tell many things about our customers, the readers of our publications: When and how often do our customers visit our web sites? How long do they read? And perhaps more importantly, exactly what articles do they read? How much commerce do we get from any individual subscriber? Exactly what do they buy and conversely what do they not buy? That is the easy stuff. But it gets deeper than that if we are willing.
Those are data points we collect from our own sites. But what happens in total is that data is collected from the hundreds or thousands of sites we visit. And all those separate visitations and all the separate transactions we make are compiled into a profile of each one of us.
Very soon we will be entering the era of the internet of things. When that happens, anything that runs with electric power will be interconnected and "talking" to the internet, and therefore everything we do, every place we go, everything we buy, everything we read, and possibly everything we think, will be added to the big data pool of collected personal information. Most if not all sites claim that they gather anonymous data about our habits. If that is so, it doesn't take much of a stretch of my imagination to see Big Brother watching our every move.
There is, of course, no exit from this on-going data collection. Nevertheless, it is something that we must acknowledge as ever-increasing, with the jury out whether it will be a positive intervention on the behalf of humanity or end up as an unwanted, uncontrollable, malevolent science used equally by commerce and political agents.