Big Data: Big Brother or Nirvana?

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Will Big Data help bring about the dystopian vision of George Orwell’s novel 1984 or be a boon for humanity, providing a range of benefits that were unthinkable until just recently?

That’s the question Fred Gallagher, the general manager of Vectorwise tentatively addresses in a blog posted on Wired’s Innovation Insights.

Gallagher pokes gingerly at the 800-pound Big Data gorilla in the room. He notes that the proliferation of social applications, and the use of the Internet in general has fostered a new age in the collection, analysis and leveraging of massive amounts of unstructured data about all of us on an unprecedented scale.

However, just as he appears to be raising the specter of Big Brother, Gallagher asks, “But is the ability to monitor our digital footprint and online activity necessarily a bad thing?”

He cites a number of benefits – everything from finding the best nearby pizza place on Yelp to predicting patterns associated with the outbreak of the flu or anticipating where crimes are likely to occur.

But despite all good things that Big Data can provide, there still exists the potential for misuse,” Gallagher cautions. “But the benefits seem to far outweigh the potential for harm. Not only does Big Data provide more knowledge on consumer behaviors but it can play a role in a medical clinical trial trying to find a cure for an illness or energy and utility companies making more sustainable decisions. And this is just the beginning. How far will Big Data take us in the future? What type of information will we be analyzing and obtaining that we haven’t even thought of yet? As our society continues to innovate and invent, what we can do with information will only continue to evolve. While some may consider Big Data a new form of Big Brother always watching, it may just become an accepted aspect of our future brought on by a society built upon information sharing and interactions.

This is a reasoned approach to the question at hand. But might it be that the inevitable rise of Big Data will have consequences for better or worse far beyond our wildest imaginings? Look out: Taleb’s Black Swan may be waiting for us just around the corner.

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