The new age of algorithms: How it affects the way we live
'Big Data' impacts how we work, elect our presidents, and play tennis. It also affects the way we're watched.
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In fact, some of those most upset about the NSA revelations include Americans alarmed about what the new technology means outside US borders. Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN American Center, which works to free writers and artists around the world imprisoned for free speech, worries about the government use of data from private companies to stifle dissent.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's not new," she says, citing the Chinese dissident Shi Tao, imprisoned by China in 2004 for posting political commentary on foreign websites, and still locked up. "Yahoo China had assisted the Chinese government. They used [Yahoo data] to convict him."
But then Ms. Nossel talks about the recent unrest in Turkey, where the Turkish military shot and arrested dozens of protesters in Istanbul's Taksim Square. To find more of what they called "looters," the Turkish government went to Twitter and Facebook for help – and announced that Facebook was "responding positively," something Facebook has denied.
And Nossel sees a difference between 2004 and now. Talking about the most repressive governments in the world, she argues that "the government ability to sweep and search is [now] so great, it tips the scale. No technology on the side of human rights advocates can confront it. That's new – and chilling."
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What have we learned? There's a notable "Sesame Street" episode from years back in which Cookie Monster wanders into a library and drives the librarian crazy by asking over and over for a cookie. "This is a LIBRARY!" the librarian finally screams, forgetting to whisper. "We have books! Just books!"
That's certainly been our image of what libraries do. "You can still find books here," Mandelbaum reminds me, standing in a room full of processors.
But figures over the past decade seem to show that books – those rectangular things with pages we turn – are slowly on the way out in the Digital Age. That's less significant than it might seem, though. After all, we value books because of the knowledge they hold. We've changed the way we convey knowledge many times. Big Data is another source of knowledge. Will it become a more integral part of tomorrow's libraries?
It is perhaps fitting that one of the "Sesame Street" characters most in tune with the future is ... the Count. He counts everything. His role is to teach kids the importance of counting. Big Data allows us to count everything – and analyze what we find. But are numbers enough?
Brynjolfsson and Mr. McAfee compare Big Data to Leeuwenhoek's development of the microscope in the 1670s. They are, after all, both tools. They let people see lots of things that have always been around. Of course, the microscope also prompted us to ask questions we could never ask before. Big Data does that, too.
Still, while Big Data can predict a flu outbreak or where trees fall, it can't, by itself, resolve the economic and moral dilemmas we have. Whether to keep power running, help patients faster, or preserve the record of America, Big Data teaches us what's out there, not what's right.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Big Data. What matters, as it does for Arnold Lund in California or Richard Rothman in Baltimore, are the questions – old and new, good and bad – this newest tool lets us ask.
• Robert A. Lehrman is a novelist and former White House chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. Author of 'The Political Speechwriter's Companion,' he teaches at American University and co-runs a blog, PunditWire.