Skip to content

Big Data is Neutral: A Tool for Both Good and Evil

Big Data is becoming as powerful an asset as oil, and it will be the source of many high quality jobs in the near future. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Big Data is watching you. And it’s big business. Credit card companies, for instance, are selling the data about what you’re consuming. So why is it that you, as the person manufacturing the data, has no say over who’s using it or what they’re doing with it? “That’s got to change,” argues Rick Smolan who co-authored the book The Human Face of Big Data (available for download as a tab let app here) an ambitious project that aims to capture the “men, women, and children whose lives are being transformed by this data revolution.”

Smolan argues that while data creators need control over how it is used, Big Data is not inherently evil. In fact, “every time there’s a new tool, whether it’s Internet or cell phones or anything else,” Smolan points out, “all these things can be used for good or evil. Technology is neutral; it depends on how it’s used.”

The picture of Big Data that Smolan hopes to convey in his book is one that is “thought-provoking, disturbing and exciting.” It’s all of those things at once. Big Data is about credit card companies making decisions on who can get credit based on who listens to rap music. That’s scary. But Big Data is also about our ability to “measure the heartbeat of everybody on Earth simultaneously,” as Smolan points out in the video below. 

Watch here:

What’s the Significance?

As Smolan points out, in a sense we actually do have the ability to “listen to this global heartbeat and actually sense this pattern of behavior across the planet in the course of a day.” That’s what Twitter has become — a “new way of sort of listening in on the conversation in real time.”

In the slideshow below, you will get a taste of how data is being used as “the most powerful tool set the human race has ever had to address the widespread challenges facing our species and our planet,” as Smolan puts it.

Photo credits


© Nigel Holmes 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

23 & Me 
© Douglas Kirkland 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data
Model Released
J Edgar Hoover
©George Skadding / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data
©Christoph Morlinghaus/CASEY 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

Great Apes
©Dr. Tobias Deschner / Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data
Shwetak Patel
©Peter Menzel 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan


Up Next