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Anxieties about big data technology trends are valid

Criticism of big data technology trends may go too far, but proponents shouldn't dismiss the critiques.

Things got heated at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium this month when an audience member asked MIT professor and noted data scientist Alex Pentland about a New York Times review of his latest book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread -- The Lessons From a New Science. The review suggested that many of Pentland's plans for big data will simply pave the way to a world where dissent is impossible and social control surpasses anything dreamt up by George Orwell. 

While Pentland is right that much of the criticism in the review is over the top, he is too quick to dismiss some of the finer points. Big data will fundamentally change how businesses and society operate, and proponents shouldn't ignore the fact that there will be losers as well as winners.

Pentland passed off this critique as the product of a "cultural critic for the Eastern elite," and said the review is theoretical, with no true bearing on real-world big data technology trends.

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Evgeny Morozov, who wrote the book review, goes too far. He wrote that Pentland shows "uncritical enthusiasm for prediction" and "rarely pauses to discuss the political implications of his agenda." On the contrary, sections of the book deal with the problem of groupthink, and how terrible things can happen in business and society at large when everyone blindly follows data. In addition, Pentland is an adviser at the World Economic Forum, where he advocates for stronger data privacy as a means for giving individuals control of their data and protecting individual rights.

But this doesn't mean all of the criticism is invalid. Pentland's fellow panelist Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, said that not everyone is enthusiastic about data services. He pointed to a recent movement in MIT's home city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to ban the car service Uber, which tracks locations of participating cabs and allows customers to call the closest one. Cab drivers who didn't get on board with the service worried their livelihood would be cut off.

As society turns decision-making processes over to algorithms, with many businesses joining in, it can't be insensitive to the concerns of those yelling, "Slow down!" Many of those concerns are not trivial.

Privacy is one obvious example. Another legitimate concern is how to deal with the displacement of workers. Pentland and other panelists agreed that advances in data-driven decision-making technology will put people out of work. However, their solution is vague. They talked about how society must come together to figure out an equitable way to distribute economic gains. But as the current political climate shows, people don't easily agree on how to distribute economic gains, or whether they should be distributed in the first place. Average workers have seen little economic benefit from the productivity gains of the past 30 years. Technology appears to be advancing more quickly than our capacity to facilitate and equitably settle this conversation.

Businesses are particularly vulnerable to the downsides of big data technology trends. They may be able to improve efficiency by becoming more data-driven, but if workers become disheartened when their colleagues get laid off, the benefits may be blunted. They need a plan for handling these worries.

This doesn't mean companies should back off plans to embrace big data. There may be significant opportunities in becoming more data-driven, and economic gains could conceivably be shared throughout the economy. But to brush off concerns at this early stage about what big data will mean for privacy and employment as nothing more than the anxieties of "cultural elites" or "neo-Luddites" would also be a mistake.

Ed Burns is site editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at eburns@techtarget.com and follow him on Twitter: @EdBurnsTT.

This was first published in May 2014

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