Go to a supermarket to buy chocolates and you’ll find yourself eyeing some fancy stationery pens, which you most definitely don’t need. You’ll find yourself at the billing counter with the chocolates you needed, but also a couple of pens that were visually appealing to you. You end up buying them and on your way back home, you think of how we all do small, silly things to find happiness in these little things. And while you walk home with a smile on your face, the shopkeeper is most likely smirking at the fact that he/she was able to control your purchase by strategically placing the stationery shelf at the best spot of the store, right at the same eye level as yours. He/She is now proud of themselves for having read the Retailer Magazine that told them how consumer behaviour in a supermarket is driven by eye-candies and strategically-placed products which makes consumers think that they’re choosing to buy a product out of their own will. In turn, the Retailer Magazine is happy to have influenced consumerism through the use of consumer databases that come under ‘Big Data’. Therefore, in short, your choice of buying a couple of pens was actually driven by tools of capitalism, and not your short-lived happiness.
The air of this generation is electric with the talk of big data. Consider that the world is a kingdom, then big data is the know-it-all wish-granting ruler of this kingdom, and the subjects of this kingdom are not humans, but in fact just information databases. In layman’s language, big data is a huge volume of data that is stored, controlled and analysed to draw insights on human behaviour. Not just supermarkets, like in our example, but also multinational corporations are nothing without big data. Businesses, retailers and corporations use databases to understand consumer preferences and control them via tactics.
To understand the usage and impacts of big data better, we’re going to take an unconventional path and look into it through the lens of pop-culture.
The documentary Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos highlights some extremely important takeaways on the functioning of multinational corporations and how the organisation was instrumental in paving a new course for e-commerce. The documentary shows that consumer data is the most important base for the foundation of Amazon. Using this data, Amazon devised pricing strategies and took advantage of it, being the only e-commerce company back when it started, and took a head start to get a hold of the “market segment share”, even if it meant foregoing profits in the short run. Jeff Bezos was in it for monopolisation in the long run. A widely unknown truth is that ‘Alexa’, Amazon’s virtual assistant, that is sitting idle in a lot of our homes is, in fact, the most cunning strategy of data collection, as it records our conversations and is used to improve the Alexa algorithm. The documentary also reveals insider information that the products sold on Amazon don’t necessarily meet the safety standards, but they are marketed in a way that the consumer feels like they need the product, and not just want it.
There’s an omnipresent fear of big data in our minds because we’re constantly afraid of how it is going to control our lives and it may be an inherent threat to our beings if, one day, our lives are taken over by these big corporates or the government. The very same fear of big data has been highlighted well enough in George Orwell’s 1984 which paints a dystopian world wherein a totalitarian regime exists, with an undisclosed head of state called ‘Big Brother’. This head is an ever-watching eye on the public and uses surveillance to tightly control the public and the ‘thought police’ persecutes their independent thinking and individuality. This furthermore increases people’s distrust on the controller of their data.
Drawing parallels from the dystopian satire, Ninety Eighty-Four brings me to Netflix’s House of Cards, a series that highlights political campaigning in the US elections. To taint young Presidential candidate Will Conway’s election rallying, Frank Underwood deploys illegal mechanisms of obtaining voter data to be able to skew votes in his favour. While there is no inherent problem with the collection of voter data, doing so without the knowledge or permission of the voters is simply immoral and falsifies the entire meaning of election campaigning, which is to ensure interaction between the Presidential candidates and the public. This is also known as “hacking” the electorate, which means using data to appeal to specific voter groups and predicting how they will vote.
This brings me to a very important inclusion in this article, Netflix’s The Great Hack. This documentary portrays the stark reality of how Facebook and Twitter use data analysis tools to exploit information on its users through tweets, posts, friends, likes and dislikes. They slyly convince us into taking certain quizzes like “What Disney character are you?” which takes up our information through permissions we usually ignore to read. All this data was passed on to a company called Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by one of the political parties in the 2016 US elections. Cambridge, in turn, used all the collected data to create fear and apathy to achieve favourable results for this political party.
Adam McKay’s star-studded The Big Short would be a great example to digress from the impact of data in politics to the impact of data in economics. The movie revolves around how data, coupled with unconventional tools to explain financial instruments like ‘Jenga’, were used to predict that the housing market is going to lead to the downfall of the US economy, which in fact proved to be true as it led to the 2007-08 Global Economic Recession. Owing to the prediction, the protagonist makes a strategic long-term investment that yields his company a $2.69 billion profit, while the entire world saw a pitfall. Moving onto a more micro example, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball shows the general manager of a baseball team having to sieve out players due to underperformance and a budget crunch, he does this, amidst criticism, using tools of sabermetrics and on-base percentage depending on each player’s information. This led to a slow but eventual victory for the team he had constructed.
The fact that we’re surrounded by big data seems a little scary and we owe it to how big data has been fed to us via pop-culture. A movie like Minority Report that uses big data analysis to predict crime before it occurs makes one wrong prediction which starts to disrupt the system, inevitably hurting the minority. This, in fact, strengthens the distrust in the system. The series Black Mirror, through its different episodes highlighting different themes, showcases that we are governed by the black mirror that is the screen in our lives, which ranges from TV shows to social media and smartphones. The series focuses on how this may be just the tip of an iceberg of the myriad technologies that may unravel over time.
But what is it that makes us afraid of big data or technology? The answer is that we’re not inherently afraid of data or technology, but the people who control it. “More data equals more inference” seems fine until the controller of this data infers more than they’re supposed to. But the ultimate truth lies in the fact that we cannot escape big data. What we can do is empower ourselves with the tool of education to learn about the mechanisms of regulation and accountability that exist, and learn to adopt a system of checks and balances to avoid any breach of privacy.
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