Era of big data

Era of big data

Digital technology has no answer to human fakery BUSINESS DAY

The echo chamber of social media makes detecting the veracity in what people say increasingly difficult, writes Jonathan Yudelowitz

Business Day January 2017

Brexit and the shocking Donald Trump victory occurred in an era of “Big Data” and data-science-enabled machines that can learn and think. The technologically enabled opinion polls were wrong, which suggests there is something immeasurable, and therefore beyond analysis, in the way people operate and decide.

The popularism reflected by these surprising outcomes show clearly how the financial services and political elites have not used information and communication technology (ICT) to see beyond their own interests and world view — nor to gain insight into, or influence on, what people different to themselves are feeling, needing or thinking.

Even so, the echo chamber of social media makes detecting the veracity in what people say — or distinguishing the work of computers or bots from those of people — increasingly difficult. ICT is inimical to the learning, real thinking and debate according to which effective strategy is formulated, executed and reviewed.

The Financial Times reported that more than 100 US “fake news” political websites have been hosted in the small Macedonian town of Veles, where some teenagers have produced hoax articles attracting millions of clicks and shares. This, says the newspaper, may have tipped the election in Trump’s favour.

Brennan Bilberry, of the Messina Group, a Washington-based consultancy, noted it has “equalised the playing field for fake news in an unprecedented way … [and] that the long-term risk is that future politicians will indulge in and promote fabricated news because of the precedent [set by] Trump”.

This is further evidenced by the inability of experts, authorities or even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to root out false news stories and propaganda in electronic communication and reporting.

The 2008 financial crisis was caused by electronically enabled financial instruments. The financial establishment did not acknowledge what now seems blindingly obvious to anyone with common sense: the poor, indigent beneficiaries of the mortgages enabled by the sophisticated instruments were unlikely to meet their obligations and pay them back.

Before ICT was introduced, bank and building society managers granted credit according to judicious common sense, informed by their observation of their clients, their experience and clearly defined parameters.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the sophistication and brilliance of those who engineered it, a perfectly sound idea of spreading risk to enable economic activity through credit sadly fell victim to people who saw fit to enrich themselves while toppling the world economy.

Modern algorithms could not sustain the new credit nirvana; they spawned a reincarnation of the age-old hucksters’ promise of fabricating wealth out of worthless or unrealisable assets.
The crash unfolded in nearly the same way, but on a wider more damaging scale than the Mississippi land and South Sea bubbles of the 1720s, which raises the question as to how technology or the science of risk management have helped at all. The financial and political elites believe their wealth and status confer infallibility. Smart people are notorious for treating their assumptions as fact and for their “all things being equal” mantra that does not account at all for variations from what was initially assumed.

How English fell from strength to weakness

English-speaking countries are easy to hack because their enemies understand what they are saying

ICT codifies assumptions, such as Facebook’s notion that people do not need to interact with others face to face to know them: that what people exhibit about themselves is who they really are. Likewise, Twitter’s assumption that complicated thoughts and feelings can be communicated in 140 characters: that an immediate reaction to someone or something is as good as a carefully crafted message.

Such applications give users a false, fragile sense of control and create a half-real world in which assumption and illusion masquerade as fact. If technology were able to help people appreciate and respect the full complexity of the world’s social and economic dilemmas, then it would
live up to its optimistic promise.

Instead, it does the opposite. ICT tells us that volume of data is more important than reflection and contemplation and, worse, that faster is better.

But it is through proper conversation, listening to what is and isn’t being said that intended meaning is conveyed. It’s not about knowing the answers, it’s about knowing the questions: confronting them, experiencing the discomfort of dealing with a dilemma, yet having the strength and courage to explore, listen, test one’s hypotheses and take the calculated risks necessary to progress with things.

The results of the US election, of Brexit, wars, climate change and hunger confound us more now that we are supposed to have a technological grip on reality.
Accessing information through ICT is quick. But having access to information is different to appreciating its context, meaning or implications — let alone knowing what to do with it: all that demands insight and wisdom.

Yudelowitz is joint MD at YSA and author of Smart Leadership.

Mark Zak

Daunting task: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is trying with little success to limit fake news and propaganda on the site. Picture: REUTERS