We are at a pivotal moment in society. The amount of data we are generating is growing exponentially. Technology is transforming our lives through driverless cars, genetics, and social media. The possibilities seem endless, as startups scramble to create the next app, the next piece of software, the next “disruption.” But, the world’s problems are also growing exponentially. Global inequality is staggering, with the average income of the world’s top 1% equal to the world’s bottom 10%. More than 30% of Americans, despite access to advanced technologies and healthcare expenditures that are 15% of GDP, are now obese. In Palo Alto, the home of Silicon Valley and Stanford University, housing costs are so expensive that most city officials, students, and tech workers can no longer afford to live there.
I am writing this blog from Silicon Valley, from the heart of all things data in the United States. For the last few years, I have been working as an academic, researching and writing about the intersections between big data and healthcare. Now, I am leaving academia for the shiny world of big data, to try to join the phenomenon I have been critiquing.
How do I feel about it? Mixed. I have found Silicon Valley a surprisingly close-minded place, which values narrow skillsets rather than creative ideas and talent. But I am also excited to try to bring my thoughts and findings to bear on real-world problems. This is not something I felt able to do in academia, bogged down by job insecurity and jargon (more on this later.) But providing a critique of big data is not something that seems to interest VCs, data scientists, and startup founders. With no short-term monetary value or quantifiable impact, knowledge production does not have an official place in Silicon Valley.
The blog is born out of a growing concern for how big data is affecting our daily lives–for better and for worse–and how this fits into the bigger picture of the global economy. Living in San Francisco, it is easy to forget that tapping into the cost-savings generated by Uber, or the sharing economy benefits of Airbnb, requires a smart phone and credit card. This excludes large portions of the population from using this service, and raises tricky questions about technology’s role in society. This is not to say that these innovations don’t have an important role to play. But rather to emphasize that the benefits of data are not unilateral. Data, like all technologies, depends on the contexts in which it is used–the people, the environment, the social need–to have positive effects on the world. It is often difficult to identify and articulate the objects and people involved in the production and use of data, in other words, the winners and losers of data-intensive science.Big data is not just an engineering problem: it is also a social phenomenon, which needs to be critiqued through the lens of the social sciences and humanities.
The point of this blog is to add a critical voice to conversations about data. What is missing from current debates about Silicon Valley? Bombarded with the idea that data can fix everything, how can we temper techno-optimism? The point is to take the question “how is data changing the world?” and warp it, turn it on its head, to ask: For whom is data changing the world? For whom is it not? What does it mean to solve inherently social problems with engineering approaches? How do data-driven solutions create new problems and inequalities? These are not the kinds of questions that are comfortable, or that make the data economy run more efficiently.
This is an evolving project. These are my opinions. For me, this is a kind of therapy – a way of getting out my thoughts on data in a more accessible way. Watch this space.