Big Data, Democracy and The Path Not Taken

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Computer scientist Jennifer Golbeck's TED Talk, '"The Curly Fry Conundrum: Why Social Media 'Likes' Say More Than You Might Think," performs a critical public service: enlightening Internet users about how little control they really have over their personal information in an environment where even a seemingly benign 'like' of a fast food item can be used to predict highly personal user traits. Those who already make a conscientious effort to protect sensitive information about their finances, medical or sexual history, political or religious allegiances will be especially disturbed to learn the extent to which their online discretion can be thwarted by increasingly sophisticated algorithms combined with the power of large commercial data sets.

Yet in concluding that the path to legal and policy solutions to this problem is hopelessly blocked by failed political institutions and craven corporate disregard for consumer interests, Golbeck succumbs to a dangerous, self-fulfilling fatalism, one all too common among other well-meaning proponents of her alternative solution -- namely, to simply arm individual users with more digital tools to fight back.

First, it is hard to share Golbeck's faith that in the absence of collective action, individual consumers seeking to protect themselves are likely to win an escalating technological arms race against entrenched big data interests whose profit margins depend on the status quo. Of course, given that consumers are already at a considerable disadvantage, improved tools to empower them to protect their own information will be welcome. Yet even if Golbeck is right that there are large numbers of consumer-friendly computer scientists eager to develop affordable, easy-to-use tools to help users assess the risk of their actions online, or to securely encrypt their data, are we to imagine that the parties whose business models currently depend on consumer helplessness will simply wave the white flag? Or will they employ their massive advantages in wealth, size, technoscientific capital and political influence to blunt the effect of these new consumer tools or render them technically obsolete?

As Golbeck herself admits, in the realm of online commerce users are increasingly the product being traded, rather than informed parties consenting to a mutual transaction over which they have real negotiating power. Given such massive asymmetry, can individual consumers really count on being rescued by a disorganized corps of publically minded, self-funded computer scientists, hackers and software engineers riding white-horse algorithms?

More dangerous, however, is Golbeck's suggestion that we must resign ourselves to the fact that our elected representatives and the political/legal institutions they supposedly serve will not be among the cavalry. She notes, "it's highly unlikely that we're going to get a bunch of representatives to sit down, learn about this, and then enact sweeping changes to intellectual property law in the U.S. so users control their data." Of course, this sort of thing -- sitting down, learning about important matters of public welfare, and making the necessary legal and policy changes to serve the public interest -- is actually those representatives' entire job. What should truly shock the democratic conscience is how many Americans today likely share Golbeck's view that it is futile to expect our own lawmakers to do their work of protecting us, and that we must instead find better ways to do it for them.

Evgeny Morozov is right when he claims that a poisonous synergy is growing between optimistic predictions of technological fixes to social problems on the one hand, and political 'realism' (read: fatalistic cynicism) about the prospects of modern democratic institutions on the other. This confluence of techno-optimism and political pessimism has engendered a gradual shift in the perceived burden of protecting the public interest, lifting the expected burden from those powers whose very political legitimacy depends on their providing such protection, and shifting the burden back to private individuals, who still pay their taxes and perform a range of civic duties in exchange for the protection they no longer expect to receive.

Our current political leadership, many of whom openly pride themselves on obstructing rather than performing actual governance, are thus not unlike spoiled adult children subsidized by a public who, like passive, broken-down parents, find it easier to just keep writing checks than to demand and enforce a new arrangement.

Golbeck is absolutely right that emerging science and technology -- and I include big data and predictive algorithms -- have immense untapped potential to benefit the public interest and to help individuals protect and freely exercise their political, economic and personal autonomy. But she is wrong to suggest that this potential can be secured without first renewing Americans' flagging political determination to be governed well.

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