Some in this generation are afraid of BIG. Big pharma. Big oil. Particularly Big Data. How valid is the fear?
Bigness isn’t a new thing. We had things so Big in the 1800’s we regulated them: one man owning all oil. One man owning all rail. Then one man got a board of directors and became that artificial One Man, the corporation—a maneuver to let a group of people acquire Bigness, and theoretically replace their leader at will. But—when they replace him—THEY generally stay. It’s a curious construct, if you think about it. The One Man becomes theoretically immortal.
And fairly prone to swallow the competition. The Bigness, not being physically constrained to one body or one lifetime, can virtually ingest others of its kind.
Or NOT of its kind. It can diversify, immunize itself against the ups and downs of buggywhip technology in one limb of the corporation—
And increasingly divorce itself from the interests of any one of these components. It’s business becomes maintaining itself. Bigness is its primary interest. And morality can only be applied by vote of the majority.
The Big Corporation is also—virtually immortal. Or at least tends to outlive real people.
So, IMHO, the modern age has cured its original problem by creating a problem. But IS it altogether a problem?
Enterprises fail on a number of grounds—mistaken concept, mistaken direction of search—or inability to sustain the search for, say, a cure for cancer, because of the limits of a human lifetime; or the limits of budget; or the sheer scale of the operation; or the inability to share information. One Man can be on the right track. But gets old and dies. Or runs out of money. Or doesn’t talk to the woman in Russia who has a test result and an idea.
Corporations, being in a sense immortal, and having huge finance, and a vast web of connections, can apply these to the problem and make advances much faster than single operations. Corporations can afford to risk a bit. Corporations which have a culture of morality in their boardrooms can take risks with the sweeping authority of ancient kings—a decree saying, we’ll take a chance on that research. We’ll fund that exploration. We can do that.
And lately…there’s a new force in the works. Big Data. It’s a tsunami of information, that in a sense ‘corporatizes’ the world population, so that we know x-number of shoppers bought y’s. X-number returned them. Sally Smith is one of x-number of people with a y-allergy. Sally herself is merged into a tick that may move industry in a way Sally’s phone call can’t. But in another sense, the fact that Sally phoned the manufacturer is itself data: if one person called, there are 10,000 out there that had the same problem but didn’t. We have virtual One Man getting information on ‘virtual Sally’ and Sally becomes significant to a corporate decision to investigate a problem.
We generate data every time we log on, use a credit card, make a phone call, even—thanks to DNA research—every time we touch an object. Sit on a sofa. Nick a finger.
We shed bits and bytes the way a cat sheds fur, constantly. In a sense, Sally sheds pieces that could inform us she is allergic to y, but Sally herself is data along with the motions and actions of all customers. Finding Sally can be amazingly precise—if someone were motivated to find Sally. But Sally’s importance has nothing to do with her holding city office or her knowledge of bookkeeping or her driving record—none of that matters to the corporation that sees her as part of that allergy statistic. We ALL become so statistical that we disappear into numbers and calculations. Sally is world-affecting with no one interested in knowing her name. Sally’s circle of family and friends knows her in a very different way, and that’s Sally in close focus, the ‘real’ Sally, who is not a construct, who is a textured human being with a lot of quirks and differences from average. Sally’s sons and daughters will be wholly different people, generating their own blizzard of data, significant in corporate boardrooms for complete different statistics.
It’s a weird world we live in.
It’s a tumbling cascade of changes wrought by data, new discoveries, massive undertakings, new social institutions.
We don’t cease to be important as individuals because we belong to a data-group. We actually contribute to these changes without knowing we do—we have our particular impact without knowing it, sometimes for good, sometimes neutral, sometimes negative. We’re obsessed with ‘celebrity’ as if that were real, but meanwhile we DO steer decisions in ways we likely will have no awareness of. Everyone of us touches every other one, even when continents separate us and time changes us. The nature of Big Data is information, but the information tends to become chaotic and full of irrelevancies when you sift down to the individual particles. Can Big Data target an individual? An individual stands out in Big Data only by the determined action of someone to find him or someone with his traits. Most of us do not have traits that unique. Our name is generally Legion, in almost all the categories in which our personal data falls. Find us? Maybe. But why?
I do genealogical research. A lot of data on individuals is at my fingertips. I can find out things about people I never met that are just amazing.
Until I run up against a woman in the 1600’s, who I know specifically shares my DNA. I know a lot about her. But because her church wrote her down only as Ellenor Scholes, wife of William Scholes—the line breaks here, forever, unless some family somewhere knows her father’s name. She’s only Ellenor. All other data is lost.
So she disappears. We know something of her influence on subsequent generations, but she, herself, has no face.
I think I’d rather leave records.