The Fantasies of Big Data and True Knowledge

One of my favorite writers on social media, photography, and surveillance, Nathan Jurgenson, has a fantastic essay unmasking the rhetoric and logic of Big Data. He argues that it represents a return to positivism, of believing that a true objective reality can be described if just the right methods are applied. “The rationalist fantasy that enough data can be collected…to provide an objective and disinterested picture of reality.”

Big Data research cannot be understood outside the powerful nexus of data science and social-media companies. It’s where the commanding view-from-nowhere ideology of Big Data is most transparent; it’s where the algorithms, databases, and venture capital all meet. It was no accident that Facebook’s research branch was behind the now infamous emotional manipulation study, which was widely condemned for its lax ethical standards and intellectual hubris. (One of the authors of the study said Big Data’s potential was akin to the invention of the microscope.)

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