Big Data and Fragmenting Society

I spent some considerable time this weekend doing research on an article about Big Data and criminal law.  This got me thinking about how hard it is at this time to make significant changes in the law.

In contrast, consider that in 1920 the National Prohibition Act became effective in the U.S. Somehow enough people in the U.S. decided that alcoholic beverages created harm to society that the U.S. Constitution was amended to criminalize it.  Later, enough people decided that alcoholic beverages were not that bad for society, and enough support was gathered to amend the U.S. Constitution to end prohibition.  (That’s two constitutional amendments for those of you keeping score at home.) 

It’s hard to imagine anything getting enough support to amend to the U.S. Constitution now.  Although if prohibition were still in effect, repealing that might be the one thing that would get enough support.

For our readers outside the U.S. that don’t know this history, prohibition was the unbelievably stupid idea that we should prohibit the manufacture, sale, transport, import, or export of alcoholic beverages.  Organized crime filled the void, and in the process became fabulously rich and a permanent plague on society.  We got some pretty good movies out of it, but that’s not compensation enough for the downside.

For our readers inside U.S. that don’t know this history – read some books already.

Back to our topic.  It’s hard to image almost anything getting enough support to amend to the U.S. Constitution, because it’s hard to imagine that a large percentage of U.S. citizens could agree on anything significant.  Why is that?

Here’s one possible factor to which Big Data contributes – societal fragmentation. 

When I buy a book from Barnes & Noble on-line, I get a list of “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought” books.  Pick a book about politics and see what you get.  If you look at Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Barnes & Noble won’t suggest that you buy anything written by Ann Coulter.  (So there is some upside there at least.)  I think it’s reasonable to assume that as Big Data becomes a more effective tool for marketing, the good and services marketed to us will become yet more focused on each of us individually. 

I am sensitive to the distinction between correlation and causality, but I think there is at least some causality at work here.  Whatever Big Data does contribute to this, we are increasingly finding ourselves in silos with those that already share our beliefs.  These are not black and white silos, but a variety of gray silos in which smaller groups with narrower priorities are resident.

I am hopeful that, in the long run Big Data will help us to better understand each other; enough to find ways to break open thought silos.  Big Data already lets us infer things about people based upon limited obtainable data.  Maybe sometime in the future we will be able to infer the best ways to start a discussion with each other.

In the meantime, what can we do about this?  What should we do about this, if anything?  I have nothing to suggest.  But I’m sure that, if I did have something to suggest, I wouldn’t get enough people to agree with me to act on it.


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