Monday, 25 November 2013

Professor Couldry fears the consequences of Big Data

Kristofer Jäntti blogs about Nick Couldry’s lecture on the dangers of Big Data

Nick Couldry, Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory at the LSE, gave a lecture last week about three prevailing myths around the social role of media as a part of the LSE lecture series. He charts these myths starting from the inception mass media to the enthusiasm surrounding Big Data today. These myths have a pivotal role in shaping our view of society as the media consists of ‘institutions with the power over the means of representing shared reality’.

The first myth he calls the ‘myth of the mediated centre’, which emerged with the creation of the mass media with modern nation-states. This myth has two components: (1) first that society has a ‘centre’ from which our values, meaning and knowledge emanate from, and (2) that ‘the media’ gives us privileged access to this ‘centre’, being the pre-eminent source for understanding what is going on in the world.

His notion of the myth of the ‘mediated centre’ is similar to Benedict Anderson’s celebrated thesis that nations are necessarily imagined and enabled with aid of the printing press. What unites both these writers, however, is that this process is not necessarily ‘top-down’ (though it can be) but constitutes a form of understanding that we perpetuate in everyday interactions. He recounts childhood memories in which his mother would ‘participate’ in the televised annual rowing race between Oxford and Cambridge, proudly wearing a pin in support of the latter despite having never had gone to university.

What is noteworthy, is the emergence of the mass media coincided with split between ‘the media’ on the one hand and ‘communications’ on the other. The former represents a centralised form information dispersion whereas the latter often is often more personal in nature; the difference between a newspaper editorial and a telephone call. However, in our current information environment this delineation is blurring as both institutional media and communications are starting to share the same platforms, for instance on Facebook.

This criss-crossing gives rise to the second myth which he calls ‘the myth of us’. This myth, often propagated by vested interests, holds that social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Google+, etc.) are ‘natural collectivities’ which bypass and challenge centralised media channels. In reality large media companies are also active participants in these platforms. For instance he notes in his article ‘Does the media have a Future’ that the majority of The Sun’s online newspaper’s traffic is derived from social networking sites (Couldry 2009, 444).   

Furthermore, many of these companies are very interested in the information about users' behaviours. He notes that there are many unwelcome developments with these changes. One of which is that we are mutely accepting authoritarian structures, with the constant need sign in and out of different online services. The second, equally important issue, is that the explosion of user-information has propagated a hubristic belief in the power of large data in understanding and predicting the social world, ‘the Myth of Big Data’.

He decries the fact that individual circumstances have become irrelevant as companies and governments formulate policies based on proxies, that is regularities that predict probable future behaviour. A good example of this is when supermarkets use consumer purchases data to target specific groups for marketing. An infamous case being when the US retailer Target unwittingly exposed a teen pregnancy when they sent coupons for pregnancy products to her home based on her purchase history.

Second, the use of Big Data is subverting some of our deeply held views about the role of journalism as the generator of ‘common knowledge’. For example, the use of Google Analytics is increasingly dictating the type and content of newspaper articles, preventing ‘boring’ yet important topics being brought forth into the public sphere.

Above all, Couldry is worried about the abandonment of  ‘hermeneutic’ (interpretive) methods as more people hop on the Big Data bandwagon. The availability of an abundance data with the ability to make increasingly good predictions about people’s behaviour has led some to challenge the idea one would need specialists who would carefully design hypotheses in order to understand human behaviour, as Chris Anderson did in his famous WIRED article ‘The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method obsolete’.  This challenge is especially acute for academics, like Couldry, as the defining feature of the Social Sciences is that they are interpretive in nature. He fears that with the increasing belief in the superiority in Big Data as a method of social inquiry, less funding will be diverted to traditional Social Sciences.

As a result, he advocates the disenchantment of the ‘Myth of Big Data’ with what he, aptly, calls ‘a hermeneutic of the anti-hermeneutic’. This would entail recovering the idea of a social actor as key unit of analysis as well as embarking on research on what he calls ‘Social analytics’, that is ‘the study of how social actors are using analytics to meet their own ends'. 

Ultimately, as Big Data eschews hermeneutics, it may undermine exploring such concepts as 'justice' and 'injustice' which involve a good deal of interpretation.


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