Will Big Data Make Us Less Human?

A smartphone today has more computational power than Apollo 13. The computerised devices around us are increasingly smarter and they multiply at high speed changing the ecosystem in which we live. Some of us may feel suffocated by this change and with all the software code we use every day it seems human emotion is valued less and less.

One of the changes becoming more visible by the passing of each day is the invasion of data in the way we think. The digital replaces the analogue. Every move is broken down into small components and expressed into a binary form. Time is digital, distance is digital, the images are digital and the sounds are digital. The last two frontiers resisting to conversion are the tactile and the smell sense, but it is just a matter of time before they capitulate.

Has the technology made us less human?
It all started with “let’s improve our lives”. The cars have better controls, the phones are more convenient and helpful and the digital cameras are so good in capturing personal memories. At a personal level, this is a welcome upgrade. We like that.

But then, gradually, as these devices kept crunching numbers and generating more data than ever, a new development has grown out of the science labs into the daily life of the average person. This new wave of change is incessant and unforgiving. We were comfortable with the introduction of computing units at the beginning because the adoption process was so familiar: it was industrial, it was large and remote. The Univac, the IBM mainframes and the likes fit our industrial model of the world. There was a kind of order we were used to and we liked: punching cards required scheduling and approval from authority; the computer rooms had managers who made decisions after careful and lengthy considerations. In the old James Bond movies the computer labs are static, inflexible and secretive.

Digital change comes in waves
The first wave was about the macro-economy. Large data bits helped the modelling (through accidental and implicit development or by design) national economies and world trade in new ways leading to globalisation. The abundance of data changes the way nations trade among themselves, how populations live and how big infrastructure projects are built. One example in which this change had an impact on the human expression is tourism. Kevin Kelly (in “Pre-Globalization”) remarked how we lost in one swoop access to great historical and human treasures hidden in distant corners of the world. “Now every village gets visitors every now and then. Just as you get electricity, you get visitors. Multiplied by millions every year, the exchange produces a subtle leavening, a quiet education; a silent bridging that may in the end be as powerful as electricity and roads”.

The second wave brought change at home, at school, at work at individual level. You could call this the BYOD wave. It’s all about personal stuff. Maybe this started in the 90s when the PC started slowly to make its way into our lives with CD-ROMs, games and word processors. It is still happening at much accelerated pace: smartphones, tablets, heart monitors, digital cameras, etc.

The third wave, which started about 10 years ago, is about big data. Amazon was probably the first to recognise the value of customer data and monetise it successfully. Large networks received bits of information generated by our interaction with the electronic medium and make sense of what happens by reading behavioural patterns. All these innocent and cute devices that we love to have are in fact little Trojan horses opening the doors to a scary guy called Big Data. This guy is demanding now that we do things differently, forget about our old ‘human’ ways and learn new rational tricks.

Take this as an example: Progressive Insurance offers an insurance plan 30% less expensive if you agree to install a black box called Snapshot on your car. This device counts how often your slam you breaks, how many miles you drive and how often you drive between midnight and 4am. This a classic behavioural learning scheme based on stimuli and response. We are like lab rats.

Skills from out-of-body experience
The most unsettling aspect of the way big data influences our lives is that it diminished the value of knowledge accumulated through direct personal experience. As an individual we need to get good skills at learning about global knowledge and understand the large patterns. Intuition and emotion are very important, but it is essential to get better at bypassing emotional impulses based on individual experience in favour of “emotional” data patterns based on the experience of large groups. We need to develop antennas that capture large social digital signals.

So, are we less human? 
In the grand scheme of things, the answer is no. We will be just different. If you take a hard look at our past, we were not that human as we want us to believe. Let’s not forget that there was a time when we thought children are little monsters and their evil needed to be eliminated through pain. Beating was OK. Jonathan Swift even proposed poor parents eat their children to reduce their burden and for the benefit of the public.

To survive, the human race needed to adopt behaviours that while cruel from a modern perspective it made sense at the time. We are readier to understand this when we observe other species. We watch on TV how lions kill the cubs bestowed with the ‘wrong’ DNA and we listen thoughtfully the voice of the narrator that explains that this is just natural selection. If we were an alien sitting on a distant couch and watch us changing family values, adopt new social norms and promotion systems would we be surprised at all about our new adopted behaviours?  Not likely.