Eminent network scientist Laszlo Barabasi recently penned an op-ed calling on fellow scientists to spearhead the ethical use of big data. Comparing big data to the atom bomb, Barabasi persuasively argued that the technology and methodologies he and other social network theorists had created had far outstripped societal controls on its use.
Barabasi’s op-ed is part of a growing backlash against big data technologies and methodologies While Barabasi and historian of science George Dyson have the historical perspective, technical insight, and scientific stature to write insightfully about the problems of pervasive data collection and algorithms that structure human decisions, other criticisms have been less than edifying. Frustrated Harvard Business Review blogger Andrew McAfee recently called on pundits to “stop sounding ignorant about big data.” Big data, McAfee points out, is held to unrealistic standards and often the victim of strawmanning. Critics expect big data to eliminate uncertainty (spoiler: it doesn’t), falsely overestimate the power of qualitative thinking, make broad criticisms against quantification itself, and overestimate the willingness of big data advocates to automate important decisions. Listening to some critics talk, you’d think that Palantir or Recorded Future = Skynet.