The final frontier of practically applying Big Data will be the rationalisation of the internal resources of the human being
"Lady Bracknell: Do you smoke?
Jack Worthing: Well yes, I must admit I smoke.
Lady Bracknell: I’m glad to hear it. A man should have an occupation of some kind."
Transport Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell to the present, give her the brain of a geek, and she’d be mighty pleased looking at the taxi drivers of Abu Dhabi.
Inside the gleaming white and yellow exteriors of most taxi cabs that roam the streets of the U.A.E city is a small computerized box that is proving to be a physical manifestation of the abstract concept that is ‘Big Data’.
But let’s take a step back. Lady Bracknell’s comments concerning the idleness of the men of London are not too different from the dreams conjured up by Max Levchin—a techno-saviour, a member of the PayPal Mafia, and entrepreneur who sits on the social fringe of the Silicon Valley elite.
While 2012 may have been the breakout year for Big Data as both an idea and as a term, its real world applications have remained, for the most part, in the dusty world of business intelligence. It is Levchin’s fervent wish however to make sure that this changes over the next few years.
Sample this, from a talk he gave earlier this year: “I sometimes imagine the low-use troughs of sinusoidal curves utilization of all these analog resources being pulled up, filling up with happy digital usage.”
For Levchin, and the many others who fetishize Big Data, human beings are “analog resources”, a trait that we share with inanimate objects such as a bicycle, or a house or a car. The problem with analog resources though is that they’re terribly inefficient; they often spend a great amount of their time in idleness.
The solution to this problem of inefficiency? Slap on digital sensors, start tracking data, analyze the data and then eventually bring about more efficiency by “rationalizing the analog resources”. An example Levchin quotes here is the creation of digital cab service Uber through which data is centrally managed, resulting in optimization of resources( taxis are constantly on the move without idling) and an overall less wastage of time (humans don’t have to spend hours on the phone trying to talk to the cab service).
We can go deeper though. The final frontier of this Big Data rationalization process is rationalizing the internal resources of the human being. A sort of perverted rationalization of the self; a process by which we seek to make ourselves more efficient.
Cut back to Abu Dhabi – the taxi driver’s driving is monitored by physical sensors that sends constant data back to the insurance company, taking note of how many times a day the driver goes over the speed limit, how many times he comes to a screeching halt and so on. With each traffic violation, the insurance company sends a message to the cab company, warning them that today’s insurance premium payment has been increased by a few dollars.
In fact, according to a recent BBC report, car insurance firms like Progressive in the U.S., to Tesco Bank in the U.K. and Generali Group in Italy are currently in a race to convince consumers that letting them monitor their driving behavior is actually a good thing.
And this doesn’t stop at drivers insurance. Levchin and his ilk imagine a world where everyone is hooked up to physical sensors that monitor everything from health to behavior and then go onto send the data to a centralized processing system.
Think about it. You gobble an extra slice of pizza, order an extra helping of fried ice cream or gulp that last beer that you know you really shouldn’t. Your heart monitor then promptly sends out a small beep and within two minutes you get a quick SMS from your employer, informing you that your insurance policy has been cancelled.
Is this not ironic? Insurance companies seek to use Big Data as a means of turning the rules of capitalism on its head—massive profits without the needling prick of risk that comes with it.
It also doesn’t stop at insurance. Pscyho-Pass, an anime series created by Gen Urobuchi, portrays a dystopian world where government agencies are able to determine (with the help of a multitude of physical sensors) with perfect exactitude in terms of duration and intensity the ideological/sociological/chemical and emotional distress within its citizens.
If citizens display too high a distress level, they are deemed dangerous and are carted off to the Internal Resource Optimisation Bureau for a little adjustment.
It is in Gen Urobuchi’s mind that this nightmare world of Big Data exists. But its potential is all too clear in our world, where the moment-by-moment behavior of human beings can be tracked by sensors and then engineered by central authorities in order to create optimal statistical outcomes. This is also the vision of Eric Schmidt, who pictures a world where governance can be optimized through Big Data.
Sun Tzu's three kingdoms
Give or take a few years, this will also be the third frontier on which the battle for privacy will be fought. The first two are already clear: privacy versus safety (freedom from terrorism) and privacy versus ‘the battle to wipe out child pornography and music piracy’ (we must censor for the sake of the children and corporates.)
The third will be privacy versus efficiency, i.e, sacrificing our privacy in order to create a more optimal environment for businesses and the Government alike. After all, is Big Data not the ultimate win-win for Levchin, Schmidt and so on? They’ll get irrationally rich by “purifying” or “rationalizing” human beings. The world of Big Data will be here before we know it. Perhaps we can stream it in real-time?