Big data generates big myths. To help society set realistic expectations, the right kind of skepticism is needed. Kate Crawford, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and Visiting Professor at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, does a fantastic job of explaining why folks are too optimistic about the promise of what big data can offer. She rightly argues that too much faith in it inclines us to misunderstand what data reflects, overestimate the political efficacy of information, and become insensitive to civil rights concerns.
As technology expands our communicative reach, new opportunities to be rude inevitably arise. Some people overreact to this incivility by turning to uniform and mechanical etiquette rules, hoping to make things better by constraining choices and limiting situational judgment. But for societies that value diversity and autonomy, general mandates—like expecting everyone to turn off their cell phones in theaters—only work in exceptional cases.
While privacy advocates have expressed concern about the phenomenon of massive data collection and analytics colloquially known as “big data,” most people are more familiar with social media anxiety, like inappropriate Facebook posts leading to embarrassing and reputation ruining incidents. This situation is likely to change, and in the near future society will have to confront a profound question.
Time recently ran a cover story titled, “Can Google Solve Death?” The wording was a bit much, as the subject of the piece, Google’s new firm Calico, has more modest ambitions, like using “tools like big data to determine what really extends lives.” But even if there won’t be an app for immortality any time soon, we’re increasingly going to have to make difficult decisions about when human limits should be pushed and how to ensure ethics keeps pace with innovation.
Is it OK to use a smartphone in class, email an instructor, record a lecture? A professor offers lessons. There’s a widely shared image on the Internet of a teacher’s note that says: “Dear students, I know when you’re texting in class. Seriously, no one just looks down at their crotch and smiles.”
“Big data” can be defined as a problem-solving philosophy that leverages massive datasets and algorithmic analysis to extract “hidden information and surprising correlations.” Not only does big data pose a threat to traditional notions of privacy, but it also compromises socially shared information. This point remains underappreciated because our so-called public disclosures are not nearly as public as courts and policymakers have argued—at least, not yet. That is subject to change once big data becomes user friendly.
The new ads for Facebook Home are propaganda clips. Transforming vice into virtue, they’re social engineering spectacles that use aesthetic tricks to disguise the profound ethical issues at stake. This isn’t an academic concern: Zuckerberg’s vision (as portrayed by the ads) is being widely embraced — if the very recent milestone of half a million installations is anything to go by.
Let’s face it: Technology and etiquette have been colliding for some time now, and things have finally boiled over if the recent spate of media criticisms is anything to go by. There’s the voicemail, not to be left unless you’re “dying.” There’s the e-mail signoff that we need to “kill.” And then there’s the observation that what was once normal — like asking someone for directions — is now considered “uncivilized.”
For the past few weeks, my six-year-old daughter has been obsessed with Selena Gomez reprising her role as Alex Russo on the Disney show Wizards of Waverly Place. Like many of her friends, Rory has seen every episode of Wizards and religiously listens to Selena's music.
Yet for all the efficiencies these do engines may provide, they may also carry a significant risk. Evan Selinger, a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, argues that less friction in our lives may “render us more vulnerable to being automatic,” and eliminate crucial opportunities for moral deliberation. “The digital servant becomes the digital overlord, and we don’t even recognize it.”
My grandfather died on Halloween. Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, none of the New York family members could attend the funeral in Massachusetts. Fortunately, another option became available: The ceremony was streamed online, and so my wife, daughter and I gathered around a laptop in our living room to watch the live webcast.
Apple’s Siri commercials promise a perfectly anthropomorphized digital assistant; a virtual, voice recognition secretary programmed to serve every scheduling and questioning whim by celebrity and average citizen alike.
Advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and nuclear energy have turned society into what Dutch ethicist Ibo van de Poel calls a large-scale laboratory for experimenting with the unforeseen consequences of new technologies.