Big data is an enabling technology. That is, it enables both risks and rewards, according the skills and judgements of those who engage it (http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/it-pro/business-it/how-big-data-can-result-in-bad-data-20130720-hv11k.html?rand=8744926). Human beings have never been known to turn down an enabling technology, regardless of the consequence that it will enable catastrophes as well as rewards.
Take the motor vehicle: “There have been more traffic related fatalities around the world, since the first automobile was made, than all the deaths from all global conflicts over the past 3000 years combined” (http://www.shaundejager.com/psychology-of-our-driving-culture-affects-our-safety/). With cars the carnage has been sufficient for us to impose some burden of legal care on drivers (without stellar success). No such sanction, or even systematic care, is ever likely to be the case with the potentially catastrophic misinterpretation of big data by hamburger driven office workers.
Edward Snowden is right: by collecting limitless data on all of us, the American “security” juggernaut, Prism, and its industry analogues, have limitless potential to generate expensive errors or even tragedy through the poor judgements of misguided human controllers. At a national level, Australia is deeply enmeshed in the activities of the United States Defense establishment’s big data plays, both because of the wholesale plundering of our private and business communications, but formally through intelligence establishments such as those at Pine Gap (http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/it-pro/security-it/australian-outback-station-at-forefront-of-us-spying-arsenal-20130720-hv10h.html). That is, whatever brings those bunnies to grief in the name of security will also bring us to grief. Not if, but when.
Nothing in nature ever repeats itself. Not quite. No two heartbeats are ever the same. No two orbits of the earth around the sun are ever the same. No two human faces are ever the same, no two trees, or rocks or even motor cars. Often the differences are tiny, infinitesimal. We live comfortably expecting the sun to rise tomorrow. Yet no mathematical equation can predict when the orbit of one planet will be just different enough, will cross a chaotic threshold and spin off into space alone, and throw us into the eye of the sun. No doctor can predict when the never-quite-the-same oscillations of your heart muscle will become chaotic and kill you. And no fortune-teller, priest, politician or scientist can navigate you to a heaven in this life or any life governed by the whimsical paths of strange-attractors.
Have you noticed? It’s the small gods who always make trouble. Take the Sock God. Without fail, each time I wash clothes, the Sock God sneaks in and steals a sock. Once I tried to beat the bugger by buying all black socks, so I could match the orphans. Nope. You wouldn’t believe how many shades of black there are. Then there is the Street God. A street can be completely empty. Then as soon as I want to cross it on foot, three cars, a motorcycle and an ambulance will appear from all directions. Now you know very well that if you decide to pay for something with all the metal collecting in your pocket, the Little Money God will howl with laughter and make sure you are 5 cents short. Then, reluctantly using a $5 note, the shop girl will find that she has to give you $3 of change in 10 cent coins. Oh, and never, ever hint to yourself that something is important or urgent to do. A merry team of Trip Up Gods will make sure that forget to bring your wallet, twist your ankle in a rush, and find that the subway line is closed for maintenance. What kind of mischief will they have for us when we finally get to heaven?
Art is not a part of things until we make it a part. An artist is someone with the skill of helping others to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. She finds a symphony in nature where others have heard only noise. The beauty of science, or mathematics is not in making new truths. They were there waiting to be found, and an extraordinary person has shown us where to look. The gift of teaching is not in repeating words from books, but in surprising students with the sudden knowledge of their own power to understand. Then words half formed, obscurely muttered, became perfect and were clearly uttered. [Odin’s song, the Icelandic Edda]
The most certain quality of power is that those who seek it will misuse it. A second certainty is that an army of zombies will eagerly imitate their leaders. And so it is with “cyber warfare”. Government leaders routinely spy on you? No problem. (http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/it-pro/security-it/alarm-bells-ring-as-power-of-data-miners-starts-to-compute-20130609-2nxvj.html ). Anyone from the janitor in your local primary school, to the supermarket checkout girl, to every fool called “manager” will now feel free to watch you through a crack in the door. They will hasten to be fashionable spies, and at the first chance snitch on you or your neighbour’s cat.
“Education does not make us educable. It is our awareness of being unfinished that makes us educable.” ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom. How much time have you invested in education? How much value has your education given you? How would you measure the value? I hung around universities and schools in the hope of growing my ideas. It took me way too long to realize that schools and universities were not there for that. In fact, most of the people who went to these places, and most of the people who taught in them, were not interested in growing ideas. They wanted dollars and respectability. Their aim was to become “finished”, and sure enough a diploma nearly always finished them. Their curiosity died. As finished people they could get jobs, have babies and grow fat. Some of them (like doctors) took a long time to get their diplomas, but somehow this didn’t make any difference. In the end, maybe 80% of them scraped by rather badly in their jobs from day to day, maybe 10% were so hopeless that they were a menace to everyone in the neighbourhood, and maybe the top 10% were ace mechanics, lawyers, salesmen, or whatever. Me, I’ve successfully remained unfinished, unemployable, curious, poor, and boring to all of the finished people around me.
What do politicians, voters, the captains of industry, drug companies, priests and door-to-door salesmen all have in common? Not much. However, every one of them has an addiction to evidence. Not any evidence. The evidence they crave (and will pay a king’s ransom for) is evidence to support their cause. So what is this mysterious thing called evidence? Evidence is the magic emerging when A together with B seems to result in C. A and B are then called “premises” to the logical (?) outcome, C. That is, A and B are evidence which “prove” C. In real life, C is what the politician, the voter, the priest, or whoever … wants to hear. The general idea is that when you have a proof, C, then other people will believe you. Therefore, if you are smart you will carefully choose A and B (not K, M or Z) to prove your point. If you are cheeky, you might even call the evidence “scientific”. That is because the adjective “scientific” has special religious power in this age. Actually, scientific method (which is understood by about 2% of any population) starts with the strange idea that the truth of C is unknown before A and B are put together as an experiment. Even more strangely, scientific method requires that the A and B premises (or “variables” as they are called in an experiment) are not chosen to “prove” C. Rather, any outcome C is only as good as the original wisdom of choosing the variables, A and B, instead of K, M or Z. At any later time, K, M or Z might be shown to be better choices, and the original outcome, C, might be trashed. Well, that kind of science is for geeks. There is no danger, ever, that politicians, voters, the captains of industry, drug companies, priests and door-to-door salesmen will have their more convenient idea of “evidence” share a bookshelf with fairies, Santa Clause and UFOs.