Big Data: Who Are We On The Web?

When you live on a computer, every hair on your head is numbered — every click, too, every date and breakup, every want and need. Christian Rudder, resident data guru for OKCupid, is parsing the numbers and rediscovering people: what men and women want (it’s not the same thing), that love is blind, that racism is still alive, and that there is in fact as a “whitest band in the world.” (It’s Belle and Sebastian, according to the data.) There’s a voyeuristic thrill to reading a book like Rudder’s Dataclysm, a book that wants to tell us “who we are (when we think no one is looking)”.

But Astra Taylor puts forward another view of what and who we might be online. On a corporatized Web, we’re often the sum of our all data — packaged and sold to data brokers for pennies. But the dream of the Internet was that we would be the producers, not the product: participants in a conversation outside of the force of gravity of moneyed media.

For all the worry about the NSA, it raises the question: just how well do Google, Facebook, or Apple know you? And would you change the arrangement, if you could?

And the data debate raises all the big philosophical questions, too, about our existence and our essence. Can technology help us to become better people, or only to see ourselves as we are?


Guest List
Christian Rudder
co-founder of OKCupid and author of Dataclysm and the OKTrends blog.  
Astra Taylor
activist-author of The People's Platform, and the filmmaker behind Zizek! and The Examined Life.  
Shelley Brown
minister and biologist at MIT

Related Content

  • I’m sure this will be interesting, but why not Jaron Lanier on the panel?

  • Taylor: “The internet has not been able to transcend that” ….
    technological ‘lock in’.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    The ROS talk on Big Data
    was a homerun. I’m dubious about the “spiritualization” of the Internet whether
    in a Teihard de Chardin “noosphere” and Omega Point direction or any other quasi-religious imputations.


    Take a concrete example of a human description of a quasi-religious experience. I choose Edmund Tyrone’s religio-mystical anecdote in Eugene O’Neill’s play “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. Notice that a kind of repose or releasement is bracketed between a sense of God and meaning, as Edmund explains to his also-snockered brother:
    “It is a late August night in 1912 and the two are drinking whiskey while playing a desultory game of cards.”

    EDMUND (with alcoholic talkativeness): You’ve just told me some high spots in your memories. Want to hear mine? They’re all connected with the sea. Here’s one. When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires.
    Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the
    bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts
    with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk
    with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself —
    actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white
    sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. Then
    another time, on the American Line, when I was lookout on the crow’s nest in
    the dawn watch. A calm sea, that time. Only a lazy ground swell and a slow
    drowsy roll of the ship. The passengers asleep and none of the crew in sight.
    No sound of man. Black smoke pouring from the funnels behind and beneath me.
    Dreaming, not keeping lookout, feeling alone, and above, and apart, watching
    the dawn creep like a painted dream over the sky and sea which slept together.
    Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came. The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful,
    greedy fears and hopes and dreams! And several other times in my life, when I
    was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same
    experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of
    things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see — and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!” (“Long Day’s Journey…”)

    I believe that the world of bits, bytes and pixels, big data, viewed on screens, is not comparable because it’s too abstract, disembodied, and represents as do all screens (silver, little, computer, etc) a kind of pseudo-experience, more conducive to psychic numbing. The internet as a research tool is wonderful (isn’t it great that a layman can within seconds get various evaluations of esoteric physics concepts such as the Higgs Boson) but this electronic encyclopedism should not be confused with the realm of the spirit. (which can’t be ‘defragged” by or like a machine)
    II. Interestingly, Nathaniel hawthorne’s foresees as early as 1851, a “global brain.”
    Go back to 1851 and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables”, with its foresight about the rise of a global brain:

    “Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! “

    The House of the Seven Gables, 1851 By Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864

    Chapter 17 The Flight of Two Owls

    “Then there is electricity!–the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!” exclaimed Clifford. “Is that a humbug, too? Is it a fact–or have I dreamt it–that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?
    Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!
    Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer
    the substance which we deemed it!”

    “If you mean the telegraph,” said the old gentleman, glancing his eye toward its wire, alongside the rail-track, “it is an excellent thing;–that is, of course, if the
    speculators in cotton and politics don’t get possession of it. A great thing,
    indeed, sir; particularly as regards the detection of bank-robbers and

    Richard Melson

    • Not sure it was a home run – more of a foul bunt.
      The guests were trying dispel the data issue, but hysteria being what it is…

      Rudder should have been asked why he does NOT use individual personal data. The reason marketers and sociologists don’t use it is because
      it is unreliable. The aggregated data is valuable in understanding the herd
      mentality or the hive mind.

      Astra Taylor actually mentioned several key points, but unfortunately she could not articulate them in cohesive fashion because she was being cut off – key points, more significant than potentially leaking PII. Platform
      design is a key thing to understand, because it leads to the insight of ‘lock
      in’. ‘Lock in’ is a form of mind control. (Seamless networks is the polite way to refer to mind control.) Astra Taylor stumbled when Chris asked her how she would re-design the web. Not only are we stuck because of ‘lock in’, but in another way, according to Lanier, is because of something he calls Idea Sedimentation. Astra Taylor couldn’t fully answer the question without discussing the building blocks: ‘lock in’ > idea sedimentation > platform design.

      Re spiritualization:
      Richard, you would have to define spiritualization to get a polemic going.
      I can understand Minister Shelley Brown resisting the Web as spiritualizing. That usage just means we don’t fully understand the web.

      There is nothing spiritual to ‘lock in’ or idea sedimentation – indeed, those things are antithetical to the realization of being a part to the greater order in
      which all things exist.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    I made a comment on the earlier ROS internet discussion with Joi Ito of MIT, “Saving the Internet from its Success,” 2011. (Joi Ito: How to Save the Internet from its Success)

    You will see a red link to this “Saving the Internet” discussion with Joi Ito on the right sidebar of the ROS website screen.

    “Internet-watching as such might profitably be perspectivalized—these next comments should not be taken as attacks but as enrichments—in
    the following two ways:

    1. Tom Standage wrote a book a few years back called “The Victorian Internet.”

    Standage writes:

    “In the nineteenth century there were no televisions, aeroplanes, computers, or spacecraft; neither were there antibiotics, credit cards, microwave ovens, compact discs, or mobile phones.

    There was, however, an Internet.

    During Queen Victoria’s reign, a new communications technology was developed that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances, in effect shrinking the world faster and further than ever before. A world-wide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users, and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates, and dismissed by the sceptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes to everything from news-gathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought.
    Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself.

    Does all this sound familiar?”

    Readers of Standage’s Book Commented:

    “An inspired and utterly topical rediscovery of the emergence of the earliest
    modern communications technology.” – William Gibson

    “Marc Andreessen gave me this book called ‘The Victorian Internet’, which is a
    fabulous read. The book makes the argument that the telegraph in its day was
    much more revolutionary than the Internet is in our day.” – Jimmy Wales

    “I was particularly pleased that Vint Cerf liked the book, since he is the
    modern-day equivalent of Samuel Morse: Cerf is known as the Father of the
    internet, just as Morse was called the Father of the Telegraph.”


    2. Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley wrote a classic called “What Computers Can’t Do” where he predicted that “naïve AI” (a la Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky) projects would all fail as they did.
    He also has incisive philosophical caveats about the Internet’s meaning:

    On the Internet (Thinking in Action) Hubert L Dreyfus (Author)

    Product Description:

    Drawing on a diverse array of thinkers from Plato to Kierkegaard, On the
    Internet is one of the first books to bring philosophical insight to the debate
    on how far the internet can and cannot take us.

    Dreyfus shows us the roots of the disembodied, free floating web surfer in
    Descartes’ separation of mind and body, and how Kierkegaard’s insights into the birth of the modern reading public anticipate the news-hungry, but
    disinterested risk avoiding internet junkie. Drawing on recent studies of the
    isolation experienced by many internet users, Dreyfus shows how the internet’s
    privatization of experience ignores essential human capacities such as trust,
    moods, risk, shared local concerns and commitment.

    On the Internet is essential reading for anyone on line and all those interested in our place in the e-revolution.

    • ISBN-10: 0415228077

    • ISBN-13: 978-0415228077


    Richard Melson