"The cult of data, or ‘Dataism’, is the belief that big data will transform our lives for the better."

Data privacy has been the subject of lively and prolonged debate around the world of late, largely as a result of the scandal concerning a researcher working for the UK affiliate of US political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, who in 2014 gained access to the personal data of up to 87 million users of social media giant Facebook and used it to influence our democratic process. This revelation engendered justifiable anger and concern from individuals, governments and the press. The question is: what do we do with all the data that is out there about ourselves? Do we make it proprietary, as the new GDPR regulations are encouraging, or do we set it free and harness some of the benefits it brings.

The cult of data, or ‘Dataism’, is the belief that big data will transform our lives for the better. Already, Google can predict a flu epidemic two weeks before either the CDC or the NHS thanks to millions of flu-driven searches. The NHS opt-out data policy uses our medical history to evaluate the best medical treatments and outcomes for patients nationwide (and possibly globally, in years to come), cross-referencing successes and failures that take control of treatment away from individual consultants favouring evidence-based medicine. Education is also using machine-learned data to adapt teaching methods so that struggling students who fail to grasp a concept can be taught in a manner that has worked for others in a similar position.

Although, there are those who see Dataism as something more sinister. Historian and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari’s vision of a data-driven future has been laid out in his best-selling book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, as well as recent articles in Wired[1] and The Financial Times[2].

In The Financial Times article, Harari expresses his concerns about a “new universal narrative” created by “Silicon Valley prophets” that “legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data”. He argues that humanism, the dominant philosophy in Western society for more than 200 years, is facing an “existential threat” and that the idea of free will is also under threat.

“Once Big Data systems know me better than I know myself, authority will shift from humans to algorithms,” he writes. “Big Data could then empower Big Brother”.

Harari believes the "logical conclusion" is that “people may give algorithms the authority to make the most important decisions in their lives."

Harari offers the example of Amazon’s “Your Recommendations” and Amazon Kindle’s ability to collect information on your reading habits. In future, he suggests, the additions of face recognition software and biometric sensors will allow Amazon Kindle to read your emotions. “Soon, books will read you while you are reading them,” he writes. The upside is that Amazon will have the ability to make reading suggestions “with uncanny precision”. The downside is that “it will also allow Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to press your emotional buttons”. Harari believes the “logical conclusion” is that “people may give algorithms the authority to make the most important decisions in their lives, such as who to marry”.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal and the dystopian vision of the future offered up by popular and prominent academics like Yuval Noah Harari, it seems that Dataism—which journalist David Brooks, who coined the term, called “the rising philosophy of the day” in a 2013 op-ed for The New York Times[3]—is under attack.

On 25th May 2018, the EU will introduce GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), a new law strengthening individual privacy rights. The New York Times says GDPR “has teeth”[4] and Wired says “it could be far more troubling for Facebook than the Senate’s show trial”[5].

 

GDPR will force global companies operating in Europe to be transparent about how individuals’ data is handled and seek their permission before using it. If they fail to comply, they can be fined 4% of their global revenue. To put this in context, for Facebook that would be a significant US$1.6 billion. Companies must also make it possible for you to download and transfer your data to a competitor, and when it comes to terms and conditions, companies must eschew legalese in favour of clear, simple language.

“Much will depend on how strictly national regulators enforce the rules, and how they use their tight budgets,” writes The New York Times, highlighting the fact that a lot of responsibility falls on the individual. You can ask any organisation what information about you they are storing and then request that it be deleted. If you believe your information is being misused you can file a complaint with your national data protection regulator or join together with others to file “class-action style complaints”, so it won’t be Joe Bloggs versus Google.

To the individual who—with their confidence in technology rocked by the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal—is concerned about the security of their data, this recent backlash against Dataism will be welcomed. But business gurus would still advise all businesses to utilise data and future-proof their companies for the inevitable continued rise of Dataism.

"Utilising Big Data can improve decision making and operations and help companies understand their customers better."

Bernard Marr, author of Data Strategy: How to Profit from a World of Big Data, Analytics and the Internet of Things, writing for Forbes.com[6], highlights the fact that utilising Big Data can improve decision making and operations and help companies understand their customers better and improve their customer offering. Companies and their customers can benefit.

So, if laws like GDPR protect individuals from potential abuses by corporations, what is the problem with Dataism? It will improve services from shopping to healthcare. We won’t waste time reading books that data knows we don’t like, and, like Angelina Jolie[7], we will be able to pre-empt potential health risks and act to rid ourselves of them before they even materialise.

“For all the fear of missing our privacy and our free choice, when consumers have to choose between keeping their privacy and having access to far superior healthcare — most will choose health,” writes Harari in the Financial Times.

The truth is that we cannot stop the rising tide of technological change; soon the machines will run things. What we can do is attempt to keep control. There is a lot riding on GDPR.

 

This story is designed to throw an everyday lens on some of the issues being discussed and debated by investors across the world; it is not research, so please do not interpret it as a recommendation for your personal investments. However, if something has piqued your interest and you would like to find out more, please contact one of our Investment Managers on 020 7337 0777.

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