I wrote an essay on the cultural ideology of Big Data, how it is a return to positivism in social research that we haven’t seen done, funded, accepted, and spoken about with a straight face in decades.
There’s lots of thoughts in here about OK Cupid president Christian Rudder’s new book, “Dataclysm”. I saw him on a panel a few weeks ago at the Brooklyn Book Festival and he kept relying on “human nature” to do his explanatory work for why his data says what it does. I critiqued that on Twitter and Laurie Penny from the audience did one better and asked him about it, so pointedly he switched his entire scheme, abandoned in a second human nature for “the capitalist system” (too bad his book’s already been printed!). It was a telling moment and indicative of the cultural logic of Big Data, one that got him a seven figure book deal, a spot on that panel he was so outmatched on, and most importantly, uses this research to create a technology to mediate our intimate social interactions, just as other companies do, as well as governmental and academic research, as well as data journalism and the rest of the Big Data industry.
It’s telling because “human nature”, or “the capitalist system” is a simple explanatory catch-all just as Big Data is being bought and sold as. I don’t think that the specific meanings of the nature of humanity or capitalism matter much to Rudder or the Big Data research whose papers so lack in theory sections. Instead, what Big Data does is what flippantly saying “human nature” or “capitalist system” does: it gives you a single, simple, answer.
That’s what, for him and much of corporate social media, Big Data is:
the truth —quick, authoritative, and only entertaining uncertainty to the degree that it will be solved by tomorrow’s Bigger Data.
Rudder was okay with looking like a fool on that panel. He makes a point to play up his lack of data skills in the book. Playing dumb serves a specific function, as I argue in my new essay linked to above: this is all about offloading explanatory power from the “expert
researcher” to data that is so big, so good, it speaks for itself. That’s the ruse: the dumber he looks, the better he can make that case (consciously or not). But no worry for him: he’s the one with special access.
Anyways, it’s easier to sell access to data than do the hard work of social research.