Friday, May 3, 2013
Review of Big Data: A Revolution that will Change How We Live, Work and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier (2013, John Murray).
Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier are right that there is a data revolution underway and they provide an initial overview of the big data phenomena. However, their analysis is weak in a number of respects. First, it ignores completely emerging debates about the kind of empiricism and data dredging they describe, which are deeply problematic in all kinds of ways, and the data-driven science being advocated by scientists. No scientist or analyst worth their salt believes that data simply speak for themselves free of theory. Second, the account is quite sketchy as to how analysts can make sense of big data and the new analytical techniques that are being developed. There is a science to big data in terms of devising the algorithms employed within machine learning and other big data analytics, yet the reader gets no real insight into how these work. Third, the book avoids tackling the deep and difficult epistemological questions that arise when a paradigm shift occurs. The book is clearly targeted at a non-academic audience, but nevertheless a grounded discussion of the philosophy of data and science in the era of big data is merited when such grandiose claims are being made. Fourth, they rightly acknowledge that big data raises all kinds of ethical issues, but their analysis lacks depth and critique and pushes a business-friendly, market-orientated line about self-regulation without adequately setting out the pros and cons of such a strategy. Finally, the text suffers from being overly repetitious and the referencing is dreadful: it would be possible to condense the entire book into just a couple of chapters and not lose any of the argument, and whilst there are notes in back of book there are no numbers in the text to link to them. Overall then, whilst the book provides an initial text about big data and does include some interesting and useful nuggets, the analysis in general is narrow and weak, and it seems more about championing an emerging ICT market than providing a thorough, critical overview of the nature of big data and its implications and consequences.