Biting off the big data beast

So it has happened: I’m registering for a PhD. I’ve bitten off the big data beast and decided to focus  on ethics and big data. I’m going to turn this blog into a place to start documenting some of my writing along the way. I haven’t formally registered for the degree yet and when I do, I’m sure I’ll post information about it. This post summarises some of the reading I did in exploring ethics and technology.

Ethical Apps

An interest in big data was always on the sidelines given my work at Tactical Tech. It was sometime  in early 2014 when I came across ethical apps (there isn’t actually a Wikipedia page about ethical apps but here’s a list of them) and was horrified and amused to discover that apps giving users shopping and ‘sustainable consumption’ advice are labeled ‘ethical’. I was instantly intrigued and decided to look into ethical apps. (Ethical apps are not the site of my research though they present an interesting case to look at how a mainstream discourse about ethics is being shaped)

‘Ethical apps’ use publicly available data to present evidence of how consumer choices contribute to the  destruction of natural resources and the environment. The rationale goes like this: if individuals are given information about the political and material implications of their choices, they will be inspired to make different consumer choices. Ethical apps work to help users either avoid certain choices and make different ones; to rethink their need to consume by substituting it with actions such as swapping and up-cycling; or by directly contributing donations to charities every time a particular browser plugin or app is used, whether or not the customer actually makes an ‘ethical choice’. There is scant qualitative research into the efficacy of these apps. They have however been  neatly  criticised .

Interestingly, a google search reveals that this is not what data-driven ethics are, though it could be. In the context of ethical apps, ‘data-driven ethics’ could mean that data about something results in an awareness of the ethical implications.  However, ‘data-driven ethics’  refers to ethical issues raised by the implications of big data for privacy and the law, journalism, research etc etc. What’s worth looking at here is that big data determines the approach to ethics; what has resonance for me is that what is actually the object, big data, becomes the subject. Said more provocatively, big data studies you, instead of you studying big data. (The idea that big data, comprised as it is of billions of users’ subjectivities, is not a specific event or object and is itself a sort of subjectivity, is another thing but I’m not going there).

Ethical apps show that at one level, access to information is seen as a basis for positive or progressive action. The rationale goes like this: if you know about (i.e have information about) <insert issue> and still do not act on that information to do something different, then does that mean you don’t care about <insert issue>  (The construction of ‘care’ for the environment and the emotional manipulation-by-disaster-scenario that the climate change movement has deployed is another post for another time). The co-optation of ‘ethics’ here, then, is that access to and use of information to do the ‘right’ thing is also the ethical thing to do.

Ethical apps also intrigued me because of the different ways in which the quantified self takes shape; in this case, a quantified self that isn’t about tracking physiological states or fitness levels, but is about morality, reasoning and choice-making. Imagine, a version of the self that relies on feedback loops and public data to make reasoned choices. For me this quickly slid into a conversation about AI, or at least something capable of more complex functions than that narrow AI we live with. But more on that later.

Machine fantasies

Some of the other stuff I came across in reading up about ethical apps was about the connection between the climate change movement and the use of information to understand it and manage it.  At the time I was reading about ethical apps and the climate change movement, a colleague serendipitously posted a link to Adam Curtis’ excellent documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (three episodes over an hour;  watch them here) . Some of what follows is based on ideas in the second documentary in that series, ‘the use and abuse of vegetational concepts’. This particular episode provides a fascinating insight into where some of the discursive ideas girding the climate change movement have come from.


There is a ‘machine fantasy’ of nature that scholars and researchers came to believe: that natural environments are comprised of self-regulating feedback loops; that by communicating with all parts of itself, nature will arrive at an ‘understanding’ of its state and based on that, revert back to balance; that nature is, in effect, a machine.

This is an early idea in the trajectory of how machine logic has been applied to supposing how nature functions, and of ecology studies, promoted by Arthur Tansley and other in the interwar years.  Cyberneticians and systems theorists from MIT in the 1970s took this further. They were instrumental in arriving at ‘scientific’ evidence of impending ecological disaster by applying systems dynamics theories and computer modeling to hundreds of complex variables about the environment assembled within a program. ‘Nature as a system of stability and balance’ discourse was thus generated by cybernetics theorists.

(A very fascinating, completely digressive thread is about how the postwar years in the science departments on the American east and west coasts saw the promotion of specific areas of work, which are linked:  cybernetics and systems theories, operant conditioning, game theory.)

Jay Forrester‘s book The Limits of Growth was seminal in using computer generated modeling in forecasting how natural resources could not sustain the predicted growth of human societies.  This gained traction at a time when the earth as our ‘home’ was also gaining currency and a growing environmental movement (some more on that here by @tattinot and myself for a work project). However, according to the film, more recently updated versions of ecology studies based on empirical evidence, suggest that nature is actually unpredictable, constantly changing and resetting the norms by which it functions. Yet, it appears to be very difficult to let go of the idea of the natural environment as a self-regulating mechanism that seeks ‘balance’.

There is also a connection between the development of cybernetics and AI and this has implications for discussions of ethics; however, we’re not anywhere near being ‘taken over by the machines’, no matter what sort of loud chest-beating the campaign against killer robots does.

Ethics, ethical apps, quantified self, AI…. a PhD is mostly an exercise (it seems to me at this point in time) in being very focused and knowing how to ask and answer a single question. So, sadly, while I probably won’t have a question that covers all of these areas, at least I get to dabble in all of them to some extent over the next few years.

Here’s a random picture of trees to end this, because trees are wonderful and there were some references to nature in this post. This was taken in my aunt’s (tea) garden where I have spent many happy summers.


Trees in the monsoon in the Nilgiris.
Trees in the monsoon in the Nilgiris.





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