Author Syed Danish Ali worries that big data enables a variety of ethics-free marketing that makes sales and manufactures political consent, but encourages division and undermines civil society. Fortunately, a solution to the problem may be available.
Dark Side of Big Data
Dark Side of Big Data
“A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” — Martin Luther King Jr., 1947
Seventy years have passed since Dr. King commented on our need for “objective and unbiased truths.” During that period, technology has made remarkable progress. Our ability “to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction” has not. In fact, technology has systematically undermined those skills. The internet, and the big data collections it makes possible, have been turned against us by advertisers and politicians and public-relations firms to influence our behavior. Algorithms are increasingly determining how we think.
This is relevant not just for policy makers, but for everyone. As algorithms have become ever more sophisticated, the internet has made it possible to collect vast stores of personal information that once would have been considered private. At the same time, information and innovation overload have made us more passive and less independent in our thinking. Advertising and consumer analytics are so effective today in getting into our unconscious psyche that it seems they have become psychological warfare without regard to national boundaries.
Amid these rapid changes our concern for ethics is being lost. Marketers in commerce and politics use their powers, and we increasingly open ourselves to them, without regard to their effect on society, or even on our own lives. This is extremely troubling. Big data needs bigger ethics, science diplomacy, and global diplomacy to overcome its potential for nightmarish consequences in society and the economy. George Orwell’s novel, 1984, rings an alarm bell that requires us to consider where we are going as a society and the increasingly pervasive surveillance of “big brother.”
Even beyond diplomacy and cyber wars, big data has profound sociological implications. Making humans redundant, dumber, more passive, docile, and obedient (Does Michel Foucault’s panopticon system ring a bell?), publication relations firms strive to “manufacture consent” (Noam Chomsky) and to control our minds through trumped-up persuasion that plays on our cognitive biases and collective irrationality. (See James Garvey in the book The Persuaders.)
Now imagine giving them arsenals of big data and the algorithms to use them even more effectively. It is like giving nuclear bombs to propagandists. We must attempt to control and compensate for public relations and propaganda instead of letting technology give them even greater power to shape our thoughts. By constant revolution in technology, “all that is solid melts into the air,” as Karl Marx put it. We are left with perpetual anxiety in keeping up with the pace of technology, all the while it continues to be used by the few to dominate the rest.
“Future shock,” as Alvin Toffler called it almost half a century ago, is not the only reason we are growing more vulnerable to manipulation. Increasing economic inequality also is to blame. Finance and technology mostly exacerbate the great divide in society.
In economics, first we assumed that people are rational actors, that they will weigh all the pros and cons of a purchase or investment and follow the optimal route to their goals. More recently, behavioral economics has told us of “bounded rationality,” where maximization of utility is not the objective, but that contradicting interests are adequately managed. For example, of goal of society is to protect environment instead of maximizing profit.
Now, I believe we have started seeing a third variation in postmodern societies. Call it “bubble rationality.” This is where each individual lives in a bubble of her own, which is internally self-consistent but radically different/extreme from other bubbles and very hard to integrate with other people. More economic inequality helps generate cultural polarization, populism, and economic crises. With big data, there is something to back almost any idea, and pseudo-data-driven propaganda can appear more objective, like wolf in a sheep’s clothing.
One more problem encourages us to remain within our bubbles, vulnerable to manipulation. Fortunately, it also offers our best hope for a solution. In modern life, we no longer have time to think clearly, so the real challenge is to get free time, plain and simple. If our lives remain as hectic, distracted, and run by deadlines and financial insecurities as they are today, no one will start thinking critically. We will continue running by social trends and the “next hot thing.” This is why philosophers always questioned this “barren busyness” (Socrates) that leaves no time for self-inquiry (Bertrand Russell in praise of leisure) and searching within our own selves (Buddha.) Philosophy, sociology, and mysticism will continue being seen as useless distractions for those with too much time on their hands—the futile thinkers instead of the doers, the mavericks, the deviants, the uncoachable, and the unemployable.
It is important to clarify rapid changes instead of becoming mystified by them. To begin at the beginning: We are currently living at the intersection of the Risk Society and the Knowledge Society.
The Knowledge Society  is one in which knowledge has now superseded both capital and labor as the driving factor of economic production. As investing capital leads to greater capital, knowledge production is becoming self-sufficient. It is a utility, a public good, a private good, and ultimately a commodity in today‘s society. And, uniquely, it is changing the nature of commodities itself.
Ulrich Beck defines the Risk Society  as: “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself.”
Financial contagions such as the financial crisis of 2008; the crisis in the European Union over Greek sovereign debt; the impact of shale oil in recent years, especially 2014 to the present, on oil producing economies, particularly Russia; environmental crises like global warming; the melting of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, etc., are living examples of the risk society. Cyber hacking and terrorism from armed radical groups also are part of the manufactured risks characteristic of the risk society.
Not just man-made events, but natural disasters too, are on the increase worldwide. The Munich Re study  shows that over the past few decades, loss events related to weather increased by five times in North America, four times in Asia, 2.5 times in Africa, and two times in Europe. The Munich Re data also show that a large proportion of these losses occur due to climate change.
Living at the intersection of knowledge and the risk society presents the paradox where we have more opportunities to apply from knowledge and skills, and to benefit from them, but are simultaneously more vulnerable increasing crises and the compounding of manufactured risks. This combination threatens to cost us our civilization.
This is not surprising in light of complexity science, which formulates a powerful idea for understanding such experiences. We live at the edge of the chaos, “where we are both strong and fragile at the same time.” 
As a specialist in IT for insurance, I most often think of these issues in the context of my industry. New risks, products, and liabilities are emerging and are becoming antiquated even before they can ossify. Constant revolutionizing of technology keeps our social relations in everlasting uncertainty. Preemptive action and pro-active “in the nick-of-time” involvement is now perhaps the only way for us to go about dealing with the fast-moving present and future.
These are issues that we all need to consider: Given that big data is useful, but often has a darker side, are technologically advanced companies more “evil” or less? Are consumers becoming shallower? Risk averse? Is public relations becoming propaganda, with selective data being used to justify its agendas? Will we continue defending our companies, even if they pursue objectionable activities, in the spirit of PR? How will we ensure that they meet environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals?
ESG is drawing a line between where to invest and where not to invest. Yet, big data, applied without concern for ethics, can make this line, and many others, disappear. This is an open challenge and not one that is actively being considered. We need more time and more critical thinking, instead of merely being impressed by the marvels of technology, if we are to eliminate the bubble rationality that now protects such issues from scrutiny. Ethics will have to be part of the discussion
 Drucker, P. (1993), The Rise of the Knowledge Society, Harvard Business Review
 Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications. pg 260.
 Mortimer, S; Munich Re, (2012), Reinsurers should price in rise in natural disasters. Reuters.
 Mills, Allan: Society of Actuaries (2010): Complexity Science: an introduction and invitation for actuaries.
About the Author
Syed Danish Ali is one of the TechCast Experts and Deputy Manager Actuarial at Allianz Efu Health Insurance Co. He spent seven years as senior consultant in a leading actuarial consultancy in the Middle East and South Asia. He writes frequently on topics ranging from data science to quantitative finance, international relations, and of course actuarial matters.
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