Skip navigation

A central tenet of Mayer-Schonberger’s and Cukier’s discussion of Big Data is the shift it allows in understanding phenomenon in the world from “small-data” explanations of causation to “big-data” explanations using correlations. This is a shift from “why” to “what.” Part of the argument the authors put forth about this shift is that it is promising for the way we go about conducting studies and identifying complex or interesting phenomenon in that by freeing us from questions of causation, which bog us down in specifics which may be ultimately irrelevant, hugely vast data sets allow us to rely on correlation of phenomena with a degree of confidence previously unattainable, giving rise to increasingly complex and nuanced observations. Big data’s impact is profound in that it has the potential to radically alter how we approach empirical inquiry.

However, I want to point out and stress how these observations may pose issues may threaten the deepened perpetuation of oppressive systems, as well as further deny political and social autonomy to individuals who hold historically oppressed identities. The chapter readily admits the shortcomings of big data. By shifting inquiry from why to what, studies still leave room for exploitation of correlations by tricking people in false adherence to observed correlations, as is described in the example of orange used cars. This critique might be extended to think about who benefits from this shift from why to what. If big data is simply employed to describe the system already in place, and these findings are used to proscribe action that perpetuates the existing system, the possibility of social and political change is diminished. Those entities who have most access to this data are also those with most vested interest in preserving the current system. So as big data proliferates, it would seem that a perpetuation of existing systems of oppression are preserved through a new kind of descriptive and proscriptive process.