Humans vs. Big Data
After reading David Golumbia’s Cultural Logic of Computation, I was pretty curious about several of the arguments he made. But in particular, I was interested in his analysis of claims that human social interaction and even the human brain itself can be seen as a type of computer, and the implications that this system of belief might have for big data. (As a student of linguistics, I saw this kind of pronouncement come up fairly often, so it was interesting to revisit the material under different circumstances.)
If the human brain is either a sort of computer or a computer in itself, then how does that relate to big data? The collection of massive amounts of data seems very much like an attempt to replicate the power of the human brain (and of cognition and language, etc.), and even to improve on the power of the human brain. But I am in agreement with Golumbia on this; I feel that assertions about the equalizing power of big data, and of its superiority to theoretically slower, less efficient human brainpower, are premature.
Questions of privacy and power aside, big data in theory does present the opportunity for much social and real-world good. However, we’re not there yet. Sure, we have access to sites like Wikipedia. We can track outbreaks of disease. But does that good outweigh the fact that human workers are increasingly being replaced with computers, or that data is being mined for more and more commercial purposes (to say nothing of the NSA debacle)? And what about the superrich, super powerful companies and governments that dominate this trend? Large-scale data collection inarguably has potential for good, but it also raises huge questions about privacy and power, and those questions will have to be addressed.
In the meantime, we’re left to wonder what happens When Big Data Goes Bad – and notice that, for now at least, computer programs seem to be only as smart as the people that create them. Will computers ever be able to think on their own, and thereby surpass their human creators? From here it looks unlikely. That may change in the future… but I don’t expect to welcome our new data-driven, computerized overlords anytime soon.