Why Big Data Will Not Make Us Happy

As Alex Banayan, an American West-Coast venture capitalist, writes, ‘big data’ is fast becoming ‘comprehensive data’. What can be assumed he means by this is that, whilst previously, ‘big data’ had the potential to be utilised, ‘comprehensive data’ could hold the power to utilise in itself. Banayan wrote an article on professional networking site Linked-In this week, arguing two reasons why ‘big data’ can make a human happy in the 21st Century: firstly, that by removing the need to perform the ‘menial’ tasks that ‘big data’ can instead perform, humanity can enjoy the present more fully; secondly, that ‘big data’ can remove the inevitable, existential angst caused by a clash of ‘rational choice theory’ and increased choice itself. This article aims to deconstruct and critique what Banayan means by these statements.

Two, perhaps contradictory, notes should be made. Firstly, Banayan is an employee of San Francisco-based private equity firm Alsop Louie Partners, who hold considerable investments in data and analytics; it is therefore in his and his employer’s interests to promote the apparent social benefits of ‘big data’. Were it not, perhaps, for Banayan’s intention to publish a book on entrepreneurialism, it could not be taken for granted that these ideas are genuinely his own. Secondly, that this article is not a critique of the power of neoliberal capitalism; more, it is an attack on the idea that personal power, or control over one’s own psyche, could or should be placed in the hands of a smartphone, which, in essence, is what Banayan’s ideas condone.

Happiness in the Present Moment

Banayan takes his ideas from a new book by Stefan Weitz, Search Director for Bing, owned by Microsoft; again, this suggests the notion of happiness in ‘big data’ could be more of a promotional publicity stunt than anything else. Banayan’s first reason for embracing ‘big data’ is that “…we will no longer have to burden our already controlled minds with things to do or remember…[and can] appreciate the present more fully…”.

There are potentially two interlinked criticisms of this rationale. The first is perhaps obvious, concerning what is meant by the ‘appreciation of the present’. Initially, one could argue it is reasonably common to find frustration in the reliance of some members of contemporary society on ‘big data’. An example could be based in geography: if, as Banayan suggests, ‘big data’ can allow one’s smartphone to tell them exactly where they are, where to go, and what is around them and why, the individual has already effectively left their experience of the present up to ‘big data’ and not their own instinct, or indeed, that wonderful and under appreciated acquaintance of humanity, ‘chance’. Why does Banayan think that an individual will take more from an experience if they have no other concern than to observe? It could be argued that it is exactly the process of completing the ‘menial’ tasks required to formulate an experience that contribute to what an individual takes from such experience. In other words, how does an individual ‘appreciate the present’ if he has made no sacrifice, however ‘menial’, to experience it in the first place? In a more general sense, Banayan is referring to daily life and not isolated events, but this criticism can be carried over; for instance, is it not the journey of life, including its inconveniences, that makes life worth living, rather than purely the promise of an ultimate goal?

This prods at a connected second criticism of the idea that removing the ‘menial’ tasks of daily life will increase happiness in the first place, which is more existential than anything else (this website has published previously on the core tenets of ‘existentialism’. See: http://wp.me/p3g0mz-5k). That is, what is the meaning of the ‘present’ for humanity, if humanity is able to entrust ‘big data’ with the process and creation of such a present? If one adopts a Camus-esque mind-set, it is easy to become a victim of what is known as ‘existential angst’: i.e. the realisation that life is in fact meaningless (to existentialists, ‘absurd’), and that only by utilising one’s own freedom can one find a purpose in life. Therefore, it could be suggested that happiness (a concept so debatable it is not even worth entering into here) derives from the search and location of meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. How, therefore, does placing this search and location in the hands of ‘big data’ lead to an increase in overall happiness? All in all, Banayan does not seem to appreciate that the ‘present’ is only so because of the material and ideological process used took to create it, and that this process may not be reconstructable by ‘big data’, nor is it desirable that it should be.

Returning to Banayan’s ‘reason’, he comments that “..[by freeing] up our to-do lists, the more peace of mind we can have”. It can be assumed that he means the day-to-day pleasures of life:  perhaps love, pleasure, entertainment etc. Not to sound too Orwellian, but how long would it be before these forms of ‘peace’ are also controlled by ‘big data’?

Power Over Choice

Banayan’s second reason for embracing ‘big data’ is scarier than relinquishing the ability to source meaning; it involves relinquishing the responsibility of governing one’s own life altogether. Upon first reading, Banayan sounds like he is making an interesting and relevant (perhaps even existentialist) point, raised by Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, that increased choice in a market (especially) can lead to ‘decision-paralysis’, and ultimately ‘decision-regret’. This, he argues, is because the human awareness that rational-choice theory, employed in the development of much neoclassical economics, cannot interpret the logic of supposedly equal choices in fact prevents an individual from making the choice at all (see ‘The Hungry Man’ paradox: http://wp.me/p3g0mz-8f). Banayan suggests that ‘big data’ can overcome this ‘angst’, by effectively learning one’s selection patterns and making the decision for the individual.

Again, there are two interconnected criticisms of this rationale. Firstly, surely there is no greater determinant of personal preference than oneself. If, by logic, ‘big data’ learned one’s preference from previous examples of choice, then surely ‘big data’ will understand that one encounters decision paralysis every time that choice is presented. It is therefore rational to suggest that if one cannot make the decision, then ‘big data’ cannot either. The only exceptions to this are if ‘big data’ knows something that the individual does not, or that ‘big data’ can be programmed to override the rational-choice theorem that an individual cannot choose between two identical options; but this, then, is effectively relinquishing control over one’s own decision making process. What, exactly, is liberating, or pleasurable, about this? If, as discussed, humanity finds reason in its decisions and processes (which, it has to be admitted, we do to a certain extent) then why is it desirable to give up autonomy over choice?

Secondly, and disproving the pure logic of rational choice theory, it can in fact be gratifying to defeat the paradox of making a choice between two or more identical outcomes. What makes humanity ‘humane’ is its ability to be malleable, and to find rationale in both abstraction and logic simultaneously, and not succumb to programmed processes. Banayan writes that allowing ‘big data’ to make decision for oneself is desirable because  “…eventually, the data may know your preferences better that you do yourself”. It could be argued that, firstly, this will never be the case, and secondly, this is certainly not desirable anyway.

Conclusion

An interesting example of where the political and philosophical notions of ‘big data’ have been discussed before is in the ideas of slavery and service. A comparison could be made that the use of ‘big data’ to manage ones own life is the contemporary, middle-class equivalent of hiring a butler. Whilst of course the employment of service will ease some aspects of day-to-day life, there is absolutely no guarantee that the employer will be ‘happy’ because of it, nor does the employee ultimately hire the servant to ‘be happy’, nor in turn is it desirable for the servant to dictate the decisions of the employer in the first instance. A passage, spoken by aristocratic Lady Marchmain to Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited springs to mind:

When I was a girl we were comparatively poor…[but] when I married I became very rich. It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realise that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor.”

Lady Marchmain highlights that it is in fact how she uses her wealth, by extension her means, and not that she is wealthy, that defines her existence. Why, therefore, should humanity seek to relinquish the choice in how we employ our means?

In conclusion, Banayan (hopefully) misunderstands that to ‘live’ is not to be ‘unhappy’, but that to simply ‘exist’ might well be. This article does not reject ‘big data’, or indeed the fast approaching ‘comprehensive data’. It simply implores humanity’s use of ‘big data’, and not vice-versa.

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