Will Big Data Undermine Humanistic Society?

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

With the prevalence of big data and the rises of enormous information, the issue related to their application and private information safety is of importance. One day, a Facebook advertisement was shown on my screen in the form of video, which highlighted that making money by YouTube would never be a dream! People can make it following the scientific and data-based approaches.

Actually, it is likely to happen especially in the data-and-information-oriented era. I am not advertising them but just want to show the concern towards the relationship between our mind, behaviour, and data instead. Also, we should be aware that the advent of data may undermine Humanism, which is the foundation of modern, democratic, and humanistic societies.

In this article, I, therefore, tend to outline the concept about how unreliable our brain/mind is in information processing and, subsequently, observe the dark side of data-oriented society to Humanism.


Human’s mind

Let’s start with a human’s mind/brain first. Under the assumption of Economics, people are believed to be rational in making self-interest and profit-maximizing decision. However, we are far from perfect as Economics assumed. John Maynard Keynes, the critic of Classical Economic theories, suggested the irrational and emotional factors should be taken into account for better understanding of the outcomes caused by the combination of human’s activities, where he coined the term Animal Spirits in his famous publication in 1936 “The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money” (i.e. the General Theory).

Fortunately, being rational is not a necessity to Humanism, we are creatures with emotions and rationality. When looking at a cute baby or lovely animals, we can feel that the sense of love and pity. We can also feel the sense of strong horror when facing the challenging tasks in the workplace as well, not to mention outrage, depression, or other specific feelings. After all, working rationally is not always how we lead our life. In modern society, the thing that strengthens our power is external tool, specifically like science, mathematical tools, and, above all, data. Hence, there is an ever-increasing argument that we should care more for how they may shape and redefine our civilisation.

Would it be bad or harmful? Properly speaking, technology is neutral, but I would like to point out that making a balance between data (technology) and human rights will be a tough but necessary work for humanistic society in foreseeable future.

If we cannot balance something out well, the data and relevant innovation would turn themselves from the tools that complement our capacities into the uncertain stuffs undermining the foundation of a humanistic world.


Data: The Springboard or the Diverse to Humanism?

Due to the flaws and limits in human’s rational thinking capability, the external tools like data and technologies are applied to facilitate it. Through this trend, we need not to make a choice depending on our implicit intuition, but objective and unbiased tools.

For the 21st Century, data plays the pivotal role to understand nature, and importantly, human beings’ minds and behaviors. Nowadays, you can acquire the specific requirements of your target audiences and optimize the processes of analysis. Also, the data may not just be applied in explanation but will be taken to predict outcomes as well. That’s why the advertisement I witnessed (paragraph 1) is not an exaggerated joke. Some are optimistic about what data science can create for production and innovation, while it is not totally uncontroversial.

To realize this, we should ask ourselves: Have we ever thought about why Facebook and Google advertisements are brilliant to know what you want? And why would one who made correct prediction to the American Presidential election be Facebook? The answer is clear today: Algorithms had done it by our posts, personal information, and query results on our browsers. Noteworthily, everything we do on the Internet will be transformed into the data flows that help the machine or technologies hacking our mind. If our decisions can be predicted and manipulated, do our freedom and rights actually exist or at least be needed?

It is still far from certain to know if the benefits of data can outweigh the disadvantages or not. The attitudes towards it will decide how it is going to be.


Think about the Future Humanism under Data

Why is this issue important? Our social and economic system was established on thoughts of Humanism where human is perceived as the center of means in the world. As a result, we believe, in democratic politics, one who was elected by the median voters can represent the position of the nation; the market is trusted to be the effective mechanism in resources allocation and information processing throughout economic system. It is all about the confidence to human beings that we have the secular world mainly based on the will of freedom and the respect to individuals.

However, it will be challenged by the new technology in the near future. The ultimate goals of data, again, are to predict and manipulate some wanted results to occur repeatedly, so the model will be more decisive than our rights, thoughts and will of freedom. If such technology could not be used in a right and humanistic manner, the modern digital Leviathan might arise and lead to the catastrophic consequences.

Under such a situation, the institutions or medical companies may be able to reject your requirements to social medical assurances according to the data showing your higher risks of getting some inherited disease. People, what’s worse, will probably suffer from the Orwellian system by which the governments suppress and monitor their people just for getting access to more data to protect the governing power. The deprivation events are absolutely going to happen when policy makers are not regulated by relevant laws or lack the concept to human rights and Humanism.

Even if our “Animal Spirits” can be complemented by data, things may change in such an unwanted way. If the machine and its owners understand who you are and what you may do more than yourself based on data, then some problems arise: Should humanity still be positioned in the center of this world? If not, what would be the base of modern society and Humanism?

Finally, It’s high time to rethink the role that Human and emerging technology play in terms of Humanism.


References

Keynes, J.M. (1936). “ The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money” http://cas2.umkc.edu/economics/people/facultypages/kregel/courses/econ645/winter2011/generaltheory.pdf

Harari, Y. (2014). “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”

── (2017) . “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”