On the cultural ideology of Big Data

Nathan Jurgenson in The New Inquiry: “Modernity has long been obsessed with, perhaps even defined by, its epistemic insecurity, its grasping toward big truths that ultimately disappoint as our world grows only less knowable. New knowledge and new ways of understanding simultaneously produce new forms of nonknowledge, new uncertainties and mysteries. The scientific method, based in deduction and falsifiability, is better at proliferating questions than it is at answering them. For instance, Einstein’s theories about the curvature of space and motion at the quantum level provide new knowledge and generates new unknowns that previously could not be pondered.

Since every theory destabilizes as much as it solidifies in our view of the world, the collective frenzy to generate knowledge creates at the same time a mounting sense of futility, a tension looking for catharsis — a moment in which we could feel, if only for an instant, that we know something for sure. In contemporary culture, Big Data promises this relief.

As the name suggests, Big Data is about size. Many proponents of Big Data claim that massive databases can reveal a whole new set of truths because of the unprecedented quantity of information they contain. But the big in Big Data is also used to denote a qualitative difference — that aggregating a certain amount of information makes data pass over into Big Data, a “revolution in knowledge,” to use a phrase thrown around by startups and mass-market social-science books. Operating beyond normal science’s simple accumulation of more information, Big Data is touted as a different sort of knowledge altogether, an Enlightenment for social life reckoned at the scale of masses.

As with the similarly inferential sciences like evolutionary psychology and pop-neuroscience, Big Data can be used to give any chosen hypothesis a veneer of science and the unearned authority of numbers. The data is big enough to entertain any story. Big Data has thus spawned an entire industry (“predictive analytics”) as well as reams of academic, corporate, and governmental research; it has also sparked the rise of “data journalism” like that of FiveThirtyEight, Vox, and the other multiplying explainer sites. It has shifted the center of gravity in these fields not merely because of its grand epistemological claims but also because it’s well-financed. Twitter, for example recently announced that it is putting $10 million into a “social machines” Big Data laboratory.

The rationalist fantasy that enough data can be collected with the “right” methodology to provide an objective and disinterested picture of reality is an old and familiar one: positivism. This is the understanding that the social world can be known and explained from a value-neutral, transcendent view from nowhere in particular. The term comes from Positive Philosophy (1830-1842), by August Comte, who also coined the term sociology in this image. As Western sociology began to congeal as a discipline (departments, paid jobs, journals, conferences), Emile Durkheim, another of the field’s founders, believed it could function as a “social physics” capable of outlining “social facts” akin to the measurable facts that could be recorded about the physical properties of objects. It’s an arrogant view, in retrospect — one that aims for a grand, general theory that can explain social life, a view that became increasingly rooted as sociology became focused on empirical data collection.

A century later, that unwieldy aspiration has been largely abandoned by sociologists in favor of reorienting the discipline toward recognizing complexities rather than pursuing universal explanations for human sociality. But the advent of Big Data has resurrected the fantasy of a social physics, promising a new data-driven technique for ratifying social facts with sheer algorithmic processing power…(More)”