Big Data, Big Questions

Big Data. Most people have not seen it – Big Data are not public. But each of us is permanently producing it.

The idea of Big Data is simple – it is, in essence, an action recorder: It records and collects the actions of the users of a product and stores them in a database.

Facebook, for instance, knows what each one of its 1.4 billion users posted and liked. Within these 1.4 billion users, it knows who is connected to whom, who visits what, who likes what. It knows which other apps you use and websites you visit when you enter with your Facebook credentials.

When you post a message on Twitter, the website knows where you are, which device you use, which messages you look at, what you approve of and what you write. When you are using Uber, the service knows where you entered the car and where you left it. When you regularly use a loyalty card in the supermarket, the supermarket knows what food you usually eat. Google knows what you are searching for.

Big Data will become commonplace in most products – the ‘Internet of Things’. Already cars know the routes you drive, refrigerators can record food items and their expiry dates, and your mobile phone knows where you are right now.

Big Data are always data about people, made by people. People create the data for Big Data while they live their daily lives, drive to work, search the web, chat with friends and go shopping. Each of us permanently leaves traces which are recorded and stored by somebody.

Big Data is Big capital. Knowing as much as possible about the backgrounds, social circles, interests and opinions of consumers is a high value proposition for marketing. The commercial advantages of Big Data are apparent. But what does Big Data tell us about ourselves?

“What is man?” has been one of the fundamental questions of philosophy since Aristotle. Since the homo habilis, man seeked to explain man. Now, for the first time in human history, we know more about the daily lives of much of humanity than philosophers could ever have imagined.

What does that mean for the notion of man? What would philosophers and economists find out if they would have access to Facebook’s data of 1.4 billion people? If this database would be queried by philosophers, would they find the homo expressivus (the expressive man described by Fichte)? Would they find the homo subjectivus (The self-aware man described by Descartes) or the homo humanus (The human man described by Cicero)? Would economists find the homo oeconomicus, always looking to increase gain without limit, or the the homo habitualis, who stops looking for gain once he has reached an appropriate living situation?