Big Data

The Metameme of the Internet age.


Big Data controls the way money flows, the way health care operates, the way governments rule, the way people like Obama get elected. But Big Data is even more significant than all this: it answers questions about human societies that even Adam Smith and Karl Marx failed to address. How so? Sandy Petland, pioneer in big data and computation social science, explains:

Adam Smith and Karl Marx were wrong, or at least had only half the answers. Why? Because they talked about markets and classes, but those are aggregates. They're averages.

While it may be useful to reason about the averages, social phenomena are really made up of millions of small transactions between individuals. There are patterns in those individual transactions that are not just averages, they're the things that are responsible for the flash crash and the Arab spring. You need to get down into these new patterns, these micro-patterns, because they don't just average out to the classical way of understanding society. We're entering a new era of social physics, where it's the details of all the particles—the you and me—that actually determine the outcome.

Reasoning about markets and classes may get you half of the way there, but it's this new capability of looking at the details, which is only possible through Big Data, that will give us the other 50 percent of the story. We can potentially design companies, organizations, and societies that are more fair, stable and efficient as we get to really understand human physics at this fine-grain scale. This new computational social science offers incredible possibilities.

This is the first time in human history that we have the ability to see enough about ourselves that we can hope to actually build social systems that work qualitatively better than the systems we've always had. That's a remarkable change. It's like the phase transition that happened when writing was developed or when education became ubiquitous, or perhaps when people began being tied together via the Internet.

With Big Data we can now begin to actually look at the details of social interaction and how those play out, and are no longer limited to averages like market indices or election results. This is an astounding change. The ability to see the details of the market, of political revolutions, and to be able to predict and control them is definitely a case of Promethean fire - it could be used for good or for ill, and so Big Data brings us to interesting times. We're going to end up reinventing what it means to have a human society."

While many other voices responding to Big Data are fearful, cynical, and even paranoid, Petland's perspective is refreshingly optimistic, whilst still being informed. These older, more reactionary ways of thinking about Big Data leave real, flesh and blood human beings out of the equation. What matters about Big Data is the way it demonstrates and represents deep interconnectivity. Big Data shows us the connections and relationships that lead up to major events. It shows us how all people are connected together, by social structures, by machines, by patterns in behavior and choices. To Petland, the promise of Big Data lies in this: if we can begin to understand the systems that make our technological society, then we can build systems that are better, more stable, fair and safe – financial systems that don't crash, governments that don't get mired into inaction, health systems that actually work, etc. As you can see, Petland's Big Data philosophy dares to be utopian.

For more insights into how society will be reinvented in the wake of Big Data, read the rest of Petland's remarks here.

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16 comments on the article “Big Data”

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I doubt Petland has ever read Smith or Marx. If the other key insights are as earth shattering as "your data is worth more if you share it" then I'm not holding my breath. So far there is nothing to see here, move along.

I would actually argue that often data only shows us how right Marx was in his insights. He just was too ahead of his time. An recent example can be found here:


What the world needs now is lots of communist dictatorships.

I wish we had that here.... Life under a communist dictatorship would be marvelous...


Certainly interesting and I appreciate novel approaches. My first question is what is "Big Data". The concept is introduced as though a common understanding already exists. From here comes the problem that it is a key concept and is used much like the term "God" or "science" have been invoked in the past as some kind of panacea, which we should all be wary of.

If "Big Data", as I understand it, is the methods of data collection that allow companies, government, and private researchers to access our personal habits, I'm not at all sure why there is any reason to believe that this will be used for good rather that to increase methods of control and complacency.

I agree when he says: "There needs to be a dialogue between our human intuition and the Big Data statistics, and that's not something that's built into most of our management systems today. Our managers have little concept of how to use big data analytics, what they mean, and what to believe." His desire to bring the "human", in the sense of intuition, relationships, and inference, back to data analysis is a good one, but it still does not, for me, insure a positive use of this information.

I hope he's right that "[T]here is inherent in a society built on data sharing a certain level of transparency and choice for individuals that I believe will tend to mitigate against central control. It tends to dissolve the power of the state and big organizations because you can build things that are far more efficient and robust if they're distributed and without the hard information boundaries that you see today." I think that will ultimately be up to you and I.


While it is correct that Big Data "controls the way money flows, the way health care operates, the way governments rule", is it not slightly over-statementing things to claim that Big Data can answer "questions about human societies that even Adam Smith and Karl Marx failed to address"? Data totally lacks any understanding of the world. Data only has value in terms of the way the human mind can use it. Data has no self-awareness. For only the minds of people, such as Karl Marx, have any REAL thinking ability - any REAL understanding. I think, therefore...


There is no question that the use of technology holds promises for improving the circumstance of those who understand it and use it wisely. And "Big Data" is a necessary tool that could serve us all as we reach for The Limits to Growth. But history reiterates an overall pattern of human failure; its magnitude increases over time. And those who thrive on chaos and corruption, who hoard wealth and eschew moderation in favor of their own selfish prerogative tend to rise and be supported by others of like mind. So the Big Question, as failure now includes the domination earth's sustaining natural systems is, can we find the means to distribute an acceptable level of care and opportunity to the individuals born into such a world? In order to do so, we need reconstruct our basic existence so that our aggregate impact becomes tolerable and sustainable. Big Data may shine a light on what is necessary, piece by piece, but will we be able to shift our paradigm and change the course of history to avoid the a recapitulation?


Sorry to all you high-tec fans, but correct if I am wrong. Does not Data, lacking the means to to think or be self-aware, still have to be entered by us humans?. And, until this changes, humans will remain in control for some time to come?


You are wrong, Maroon.

Data can be collected automatically and stored automatically. Computers can even interpret and act on the data automatically.

All on the above happens regularly every day almost everywhere around the world.

Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!


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