Big data and decision-making

The NY Times announces the arrival of "The Age of Big Data." Yes, I know, it's quite the scoop. The article is replete with amusement. But here's one of my favorite lines. 

In business, economics and other fields, Professor Brynjolfsson says, decisions will increasingly be based on data and analysis rather than on experience and intuition. “We can start being a lot more scientific,” he observes.

Too bad "big data" didn't arrive in time to prevent the mortgage crisis. Oh wait… hmmmm. 

So a few brief points. First, big data is like a coffee cup. It's as real and true as the coffee cup. It's a thing, an object. It's out there. Or perhaps it's many different things. In some respects the data have always been there and are now accessible to humans in new ways. In other cases, data are a new species of objects emerging from networked culture. So, for example, in the digital humanities all those books published in the 19th century have been there for over 100 years. Digitize them and they become big data in a new way. I know it's a little strange to speak of data as plural (even though technically it is, I suppose). We think of data as monolithic and also as having meaning in some immanent sense, as if data=meaning.  Of course data require analyses/interpretation, which leads to another quote from this article: "Data is tamed and understood using computer and mathematical models. These models, like metaphors in literature, are explanatory simplifications. They are useful for understanding, but they have their limits." If models are like metaphors (or similes in this case) then that's a strange way of thinking of data as "more scientific." If one instead thinks of data as objects then one is back in the same old problem one always has in the world: there's a lot of stuff but what does it mean? The proliferation of data only adds to the problem even as it proposes to reduce the problem by being manipulable.

Second, the absolute distinction between data/analysis and experience/intuition makes no sense. Experience is data. Intuition is analysis. If I'm going to use data, I have to experience it. I'm not sure how I just cut intuition out of any analytical experience. This is perhaps a classic Latourian problem wherein being "scientific" means adhering to natural laws separable from cultural-psychological processes, when oddly one might suggest the obverse: that experience and intuition are "natural" cognitive processes and "big data" analysis is clearly a technosocial process. In the end, I'm not sure there's a great deal of evidence for the "intuition" that having more data leads to better information, let alone better decision-making. I do think that there's plenty of evidence that having more data leads to the composition of different knowledge and a capacity to act differently. Often those capacities have little connection with our past actions. As such, we come to "know" things without really knowing what they mean, and we discover new things we might do but have little foundation for deciding what we should do. This is not, in my view, a situation that suggests we will be more "scientific," if by scientific we mean operating in a less fallible way.

Of course maybe that's not what is meant here at all. Maybe what is meant by being scientific is that we will turn our economy into a giant data-driven economics lab. In that case, we probably are already there. Perhaps we can examine how scientific/economic knowledge is constructed and have conversations about the validity of the data, the methods, reproducibility, and so on, just as we do in science. But instead I think what is being suggested is that we will be presented with black-boxed "facts" that bear some scientific stamp of approval. I really don't see how that kind of naivete will be helpful.


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