Can We Humanize the Data Monster?

Frankeinstein-360.jpgVictor Frankenstein is a fictional character who created life from a collection of spare parts in an 1818 novel by Mary Shelley.

Mark Zuckerberg is a Harvard dropout who founded a company that went from zero users and zero revenue in 2004 to more than 2 billion monthly users and nearly $28 billion in revenue today.  That makes him a living (if alarmingly young) legend.   

Kevin Roose tied the two neatly together in a New York Times editorial, "Facebook's Frankenstein Moment."  It's well worth reading, because it presents the best imaginable example of a challenge that will face the place you live in the next 20 years.  

Facebook is in hot water because its enormously successful business model is based on substituting algorithms for human judgment, as pointed out by another Times editorialist, Zeynep Tufekci. While you are using Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family, it is using deep surveillance of your online activity to target you for ads and "promoted posts" that drop into your personal news feed as though originating from those friends and family.  That's what enables Facebook to serve 2 billion users with about 20,650 employees – one for every 100,000 users.    You are not Facebook's customer; you are its product.  Facebook's customers are the companies – and as we now know, intelligence agencies and extremists – that pay those billions to advertise. The algorithms don't know the difference.  Being algorithms, they also don't care. 

Zuckerberg-360.jpgThis is not meant to be an indictment of Facebook.  The company is now doing what we all do when the unintended consequences of technology surprise us.  It is scrambling to change how it operates, and to do it with the least risk of upsetting the gravy train.  The algorithms may not care but Facebook's leaders know that they have to.  And in the company's short history, it has proven itself pretty good at fixing problems once it decides it has to. 

No, this is a call to awareness for us all.  Big Data, of which Facebook is one facet, is creating enormous economic opportunity, and communities everywhere are rightfully rushing to tap into it.  It is an opportunity as available to the suburban and rural community as to the biggest city, as long as they have the right skills and institutions.  Just ask the folks at ESRI, the world's leading provider of GIS data, in the desert of Redlands, California nearly 100 miles from Los Angeles, or the clever boys and girls of OpenText in Waterloo, about the same distance outside Toronto. 

As we work hard to capture those opportunities, however, we need to be prepared to defend our humanity.  By fueling a better-informed, better-connected society, Big Data can support human hopes and human potential.  It can contribute to prosperity, knowledge, safety, cultural richness and greater collaboration.  It can also make us poorer, more afraid, less informed, more cleverly manipulated and less engaged with our fellow human beings.  From now until our global Summit in June, we will be looking at the need to humanize data and we will celebrate the innovative communities that are seizing the opportunities without sacrificing their souls.

What we ultimately get is not up to the algorithms.  It is up to us, as individuals, as family members and as members of a community.  The tragedy and horror of Frankenstein is not that a living man was made from dead body parts.  It is that he did not know what to do with the life that technology had given him. 

Photo credit: Frankenstein, Pinterist; Mark Zuckerberg by Insider Monkey, Flickr Creative Commons
Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.
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