Is This Big Data / AI / Cloud Thing Really A Good Thing?


Saturday, 8.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Defy the central planners. Upend their designs for your life. Be a staunch individualist. Stand on your rights. – A.E. Samaan

I wonder how many genuinely evil people have existed throughout history.

Most of us can think of a few examples who have had their cruelty extensively documented.

We know and read of functionaries who have been given the power to abuse others by their governments.

And every society has its criminals – but at some point everything becomes circular as the history of the criminal often starts with their experiences first as a victim.

But we should probably be careful before labelling people with absolute terms – although in today’s social media age that kind of restraint is hardly practised.

So, while it is easy to use the language of evil when trying to understand the behaviour of large multinationals, is it the right way to look at things?

For example, there are books that denounce the oil business, the tech industry and many other industries you can think of – pointing to their history of doing everything they can to intimidate, silence and crush the opposition.

Stories of the way Intel under Andy Grove acted, for example, are part of Silicon Valley folklore.

He thought, apparently, that only the paranoid survive, bringing his cold war thinking to his approach to doing business.

The point I’m making is that when you look closely at power you also see the potential for actions that can be construed as evil.

As you know, power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Most of the time, however, it is likely that the actions organisations take have some fundamental idea of good at their core and then they get wrapped in layers of view and opinions of those with power and responsibility until eventually the core is buried and all we see is the exercise of power.

Centralised power.

And most experiments with centralised power seem to have rather undesirable consequences for those without power.

What am I trying to say with all this stuff.

The way most large organisations in the tech sector want you to organise your life goes like this.

  1. Use their devices for everything you do.
  2. Keep all your data on their cloud.
  3. Do all the processing and analysis you want to do using their services.
  4. Increasingly trust their ability to do everything for you using AI and Big Data.

Now, vendors are often surprised that governments and people don’t sign up to their very reasonable suggestion that you use them for everything you could possibly want to do.

But many of us, instinctively and viscerally, don’t want to give up control of our lives.

Or at least, we wouldn’t if asked up front.

But we do give it away, to apps and services over time, drawn in by the fact that the services are usually free.

At the same time is there anything genuinely important that you trust to these systems without any other way to get to them?

For example, if the Internet went down tomorrow for a month, would your life fall apart?

I suspect it would for most of us actually.

But, if the big companies went down – say Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple – would you be unable to do your work or get on with the things that made you or your business an income?

I don’t really have a clear answer to the problem of whether you should do everything on the cloud or not.

It’s a personal decision to some extent.

The quote that starts this post is by A.E Samaan, the pen name of an investigative historian – and I came across his work as I looked for quotes about central planning.

The thing we have to understand is that freedom and liberty and all those things free people take for granted were actually quite hard won things.

And there are always organisations, with the best of intentions, who believe that things would be better if we gave up some of those freedoms.

And these days the kinds of freedoms we are encourage to give up include the skills to hold and process our own data.

It seems so simple – let us do all the thinking for you – while you get on with the important task of living and sending out your social media updates.

I am not sure that this is a good thing for people.

For example, most people think that kids these days are digital natives.

They are very good at using technology – but only a small number of them can design or program that technology.

In essence, it’s like they can read but not write.

In other words, many digital natives are actually digital semi-literates.

It’s easier to control a semi-literate population than an educated and vociferous one.

These vaunted technologies of today – big data, AI and the cloud – can be centralised ones and controlled by a few.

And that is the strategy that some companies are going to follow.

But it would be better for us if they were decentralised and democratised.

And that is the strategy that we, as people, should follow.


Karthik Suresh

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