Enter a search into Google. Now try to get to the end of the resulting list of websites.
Visit the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library, and ask your tour guide how many buildings house the Library’s materials, and whether that’s anywhere near sufficient.
As individuals and as organisations, we’ve attempted to make our world of “big data” more navigable using business competition, recommendations and user-centred design. While these are all fair attempts at distilling data so non-data scientists can make sense of what’s going on in the world, these attempts also exclude data sources that may be relevant to you.
Recommendations come to us through review platforms and algorithms. Review platforms give us insight into other people’s experience so we don’t have to waste time on something that doesn’t meet our expectations. There are so many reviews available, though, that at times I prefer to view something myself, in person. I come to a decision more quickly and I’m more confident in my decision.
Algorithms use past behaviours to make recommendations. While past behaviours can be an indicator for future behaviours, relying entirely on algorithms implies that our past behaviour is the indicator of future behaviours. We are discouraged from asking questions because we have more information presented to us than we can ever hope to process. Recommendations threaten curiosity and serendipitous discovery, which in turn threatens creativity. With the increasing complexity of the challenges facing our world, we need creativity now more than ever.
Don’t get me wrong, recommendations aren’t all bad. They support user-centered design principles of efficiency and convenience that save us time and frustration. The danger with user-centered design comes from the abstraction it creates. In an effort to help non-expert users accomplish their goals with digital technologies, we abstract the inner-workings of digital technologies.
Take “the cloud,” for instance: it’s actually a storage system similar to what’s in your computer, it’s just located in places far from where you’re using your computer. The cloud is susceptible to crashing or being damaged by the same things to which your computer is susceptible. The value of the cloud is in duplication: the more places you store your data, the more likely you’ll be able to access it from at least one of those places.
The term “cybersecurity” provides another example of abstraction. Despite its connotation, cybersecurity is very much a reactive concept. Cybersecurity experts help companies prepare to respond to hacks, rather than simply securing technology against hacks. Eliminating the chances of hacking is impossible.
Business Competition (Capitalism)
In addition to abstracting data and the inner-workings of digital technologies, we’ve also abstracted the capitalist processes that determine what information we see. Google’s search results aren’t all about your past behaviour and the past behaviour of others who have searched for something similar. Google AdWords puts a price on individual words, abstracted from the context in which they are used. Advertisers purchase these words with the hope of ranking high enough in Google’s “ad auction” that their link will appear at the top of a Google search results page. As a business, Google has to make a profit, so I’m impressed with this process of linguistic quantification.
That being said, I’m also concerned by the implications of imposing capitalism on our language. Language, as a major tool for communication, has inextricable ties to our thought. I don’t want my thought subjected to the same competitive forces as businesses. Yet it is. Everyday. Several times a day, in fact.
What about the credibility of an information source?
What about gathering primary information sources?
What about considering arguments for and against a topic before concluding your perspective?
These tenants of proper research and persuasive argumentation are falling to the wayside. I believe we need to diversity our search methods and ease the process of analysis. I believe we need to contextualise digital data and information so that we can understand where our perspective fits within the global context.
I came to Scotland to reveal what current digital technologies exclude.