Skip navigation

As we wrap up our lectures this week and tie together some of the course’s overarching ideas, I was struck by the many distinctions Big Data completely obliterates – the difference between public and private, visible and invisible, the window of the interface and the ‘real’ world, a subjective ‘you’ as opposed to a collective ‘you.’ Mayer-Schonberger’s basic definition of Big Data is “things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value.” Data may be “big” in size, but it formulates insights that are very “small” as it, for example, zeroes in on one particular user’s preferences and “suggested purchases” on Amazon out of millions of customers. The haystack may be big, but the data always finds the needle.


Suddenly, personal preferences don’t seem so unique to any given individual. I  am grouped in with tons of other needles in the haystack who may be interested in listening to the Beatles just because we listened to the Rolling Stones. It’s not so easy to say that my public life is suddenly private – rather my life is simultaneously private and public, belonging to me and millions of others like me without need for distinction. In the end, Big Data still gets the job done, so I don’t really feel the need to grasp a distinction between public or private any longer.

The same goes for a distinction between feeling visible, while at the same time invisible, on the Internet. Big Data may make my preferences visible, uncovering them from deep within the haystack. In doing so, I as a unique individual am not just made invisible as I’m grouped in with other needles, but completely obliterated. Just as Mayer-Schonberger mentions the loss of specific estimation as a quantity increases (ex: it’s never one-million…and one dollars), I am lost from sight among the masses. Suddenly, ‘one-million people plus me’ equates to just ‘one-million.’ At the same instant, Big Data is both watching and not watching you, largely because ‘you’ no longer holds any distinct meaning separate from ‘subjective’ or ‘collective.’


My following question may seem arbitrary and nominally nit-picky, but it’s one I can’t shake after thinking through the above distinctions. Is Big Data really “big”? Could we not, at the same time, call it “Small Data”? Or “Data That Is Both Big And Small”? That’s definitely a bit more of a mouthful.