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On Big Data and Society. Interview with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

by Roberto V. Zicari on January 8, 2016

“There is potentially too much at stake to delegate the issue of control to individuals who are neither aware nor knowledgable enough about how their data is being used to raise alarm bells and sue data processors.”–Viktor Mayer-Schönberger.

On Big Data and Society, I have interviewed Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University (UK).

Happy New Year!


Q1. Is big data changing people’s everyday world in a tangible way?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Yes, of course. Most of us search online regularly. Internet search engines would not work nearly as well without Big Data (and those of us old enough to remember the Yahoo menus of the 1990s know how difficult it was then to find anything online). We would not have recommendation engines helping us find the right product (and thus reducing inefficient transaction costs), nor would flying in a commercial airplane be nearly as safe as it is today.

Q2. You mentioned in your recent book with Kenneth Cukier, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live Work and Think, that the fundamental shift is not in the machines that calculate data but in the data itself and how we use it. But what about people?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: I do not think data has agency (in contrast to Latour), so of course humans are driving the development. The point we were making is that the source of value isn’t the huge computing cluster or the smart statistical algorithm, but the data itself. So when for instance asking about the ethics of Big Data it is wrong to focus on the ethics of algorithms, and much more appropriate to focus on the ethics of data use.

Q3. What is more important people`s good intention or good data?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: This is a bit like asking whether one prefers apples or sunshine. Good data (being comprehensive and of high quality) reflects reality and thus can help us gain insights into how the world works. That does not make such discovery ethical, even though the discover is correct. Good intentions point towards an ethical use of data, which helps protect us again unethical data uses, but does not prevent false big data analysis. This is a long way of saying we need both, albeit for different reasons.

Q4. What are your suggestion for concrete steps that can be taken to minimize and mitigate big data’s risk?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: I have been advocating ex ante risk assessments of big data uses, rather than (as at best we have today) ex post court action. There is potentially too much at stake to delegate the issue of control to individuals who are neither aware nor knowledgable enough about how their data is being used to raise alarm bells and sue data processors. This is not something new. There are many areas of modern life that are so difficult and intransparent for individuals to control that we have delegated control to competent government agencies.
For instance, we don’t test the food in supermarkets ourselves for safety, nor do we crash-test cars before we buy them (or Tv sets, washing machines or microwave ovens), or run our own drug trials.
In all of these cases we put in place stringent regulation that has at its core a suitable process of risk assessment, and a competent agency to enforce it. This is what we need for Big Data as well.

Q5. Do you believe is it possible to ensure transparency, guarantee human freewill, and strike a better balance on privacy and the use of personal information?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Yes, I do believe that. Clearly, today we are getting not enough transparency, and there aren’t sufficiently effective guarantees for free will and privacy in place. So we can do better. And we must.

Q6. You coined in your book the terms “propensity” and “fetishization” of data. What do you mean with these terms?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: I don’t think we coined the term “propensity”. It’s an old term denoting the likelihood of something happening. With the “fetishization of data” we meant the temptation (in part caused by our human bias towards causality – understanding the world around us as a sequence of causes and effects) to imbue the results of Big Data analysis with more meaning than they deserve, especially suggesting that they tell us why when they only tell us what.

Q7. Can big and open data be effectively used for the common good?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Of course. Big Data is at its core about understanding the world better than we do today. I would not be in the academy if I did not believe strongly that knowledge is essential for human progress.

Q8. Assuming there is a real potential in using data–driven methods to both help charities develop better services and products, and understand civil society activity. What are the key lessons and recommendations for future work in this space?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: My sense is that we need to hope for two developments. First, that more researchers team up with decision makers in charities, and more broadly civil society organizations (and the government) to utilize Big Data to improve our understanding of the key challenges that our society is facing. We need to improve our understanding. Second, we also need decision makers and especially policy makers to better understand the power of Big Data – they need to realize that for their decision making data is their friend; and they need to know that especially here in Europe, the cradle of enlightenment and modern science, data-based rationality is the antidote to dangerous beliefs and ideologies.

Q9. What are your current areas of research?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: I have been working on how Big Data is changing learning and the educational system, as well as how Big Data changes the process of discovery, and how this has huge implications, for instance in the medical field.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University. In addition to the best-selling “Big Data” (with Kenneth Cukier), Mayer-Schönberger has published eight books, including the awards-winning “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” and is the author of over a hundred articles and book chapters on the information economy. He is a frequent public speaker, and his work have been featured in (among others) New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Economist, Nature and Science.

Mayer-Schönberger, V. and Cukier, K. (2013) Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think. John Murray.

Mayer-Schönberger, V. (2009) Delete – The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Princeton University Press.

Related Posts

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How can Open Data help to solve long-standing problems in agriculture and nutrition? BY Andrea Powell,CIO, CABI., December 7, 2015

Big Data and Large Numbers of People: the Need for Group Privacy by Prof. Luciano Floridi, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford., March 2, 2015

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