Newsweek: What’s the NSA going to do with your Data?
The complex facets of human identity are ever closer to being distilled into analytic data. That may read a bit extreme, but in terms of marketing, encoding human nature into a series of predictable patterns has become the focal point of many institutions. A recent article posted on Newsweek.com entitled “What’s the NSA Going to do with your Data?” examines the attitudes of many data collecting agencies in regards to stockpiling user generated information. While it is certainly not a new notion that large entities such as corporations are interested in the data produced from studies of user behaviors, there needs to be more public acknowledgement of how this data is manipulated. As the world’s governing bodies shift towards a philosophy of what Professor David Golumbia calls “computationalism,” it is an opportune time for people to reflect on how they feel about large portions of their data being used to assess their perceived needs.
In answering the titular question, “What’s the NSA Going to do with your Data?” Kevin Maney gives readers insight into the thinking behind big data collection. By using sources such as cell phone taps, Google searches, and Yahoo traffic, the National Security Agency is trying to map behavior patterns into predictable trends. Akin to businesses that use marketing analyses to find ways to encourage customer spending, the NSA wants to pinpoint the factors that explain individual choices. While Maney reminds readers that “behavior modeling is not intrinsically good or bad,” the entire idea of big data collection seems to be a judgement on the value of human input. If human nature is nothing but a mathematical formula, then what does it say about how people make decisions? Are they making them for themselves, or are they in turn being manipulated by the outside factors imposed on them?
The question of how big data affects people and vice versa is the main examination of Professor David Golumbia’s The Cultural Logic of Computation. Computationalism, here being loosely defined as the belief in the power of computation to explain human interaction, has undoubtedly become more prevalent in recent times. As many philosophers have argued, the human mind makes connections and stores its own form of data, much like a computer. Using this “classic” view of computationalism as a springboard, Golumbia claims that the human mind and the literal computation of computers are continually merging. He goes on to posit that with this merging there comes a threat to the power of the individual. As businesses, schools, and governments begin to utilize the computation of big data in supporting their daily operations, they are also “centralizing, demaracating, and concentrating power.” Golumbia asserts that an attitude of computationalism often serves to justify the continued existence of powerful entities, because it does not create a truly democratic atmosphere
Given the view that computationalism supports the interests of institutions far more than those of individuals, there is an eerie synergy between Maney’s article and Golumbia’s views. The most alarming quote in Maney’s piece comes from the CEO of a company which develops predictive software, who claims “There’s no such thing as too much data.” Coupled with the example of an NSA facility in Utah that can store one hundred years worth of data and uses enough electricity to power 65,000 homes, there is validity to Golumbia’s observations.
Golumbia, David. The Cultural Logic of Computation. Harvard University Press, 2009. http://www.academia.edu/1985158/The_Cultural_Logic_of_Computation (accessed November 19, 2013).
Maney, Kevin. “What’s the NSA Going to do with your Data?.” Newsweek, November 08, 2013. http://www.newsweek.com/whats-nsa-going-do-your-data-2840 (accessed November 19, 2013).