Big Data: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 11th, 2013 by bobmorris

Big DataBig Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think
Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2013)

A “treasure hunt” to extract insights from data and unleash dormant value by a shift from causation to correlation

According to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, “There is no rigorous definition of big data. Initially the idea was that the volume of information had grown so large that the quantity being examined no longer fit into the memory that computers use for processing, so engineers needed to revamp the tools they used for analyzing it all…One way to think about the issue today — and the way we do in the book — is this: big data refers to 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, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more.” Much more.

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier identify and examine several “shifts” in the way information is analyzed that transform how we understand and organize society. Understanding these shifts helps us to understand the nature and extent of big data’s possibilities as well as its limitations. For example, more data can be processed and evaluated. Also, Looking at vastly more data reduces our preoccupation with exactitude. Moreover, “these two shifts lead to a third change, which we explain in Chapter Four: a move away from the age-old search for causality.” They devote a separate chapter to each of these shifts, then direct their and their reader’s attention to a term, indeed a process that helps frame the changes: datafication, a concept they discuss in Chapter Five.

Then in Chapters Six and Seven, they explain how big data changes the nature of business, markets, and society as what they characterize as a multi-dimensional “treasure hunt” continues to extract insights from data and unleash dormant value by a shift from causation to correlation. That is to say, big data “marks an important step in humankind’s quest to quantify and understand the world” in ways and to an extent once thought impossible.

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the scope of Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s coverage.

o Letting the data speak (Pages 6-12)
o More, messy, good enough (12-18)
o More trumps better (39-49)
o Illusions and illuminations (61-68)
o Quantifying the world, and, When words become data (79-86)
o The “option value” of data, and, The reuse of data (102-107)
o The value of open data (116-118)
o The big-data value chain (126-134)
o The demise of the expert (139-145)
o Paralyzing piracy (152-157)
o The dictatorship of data, and, The dark side of big data (163-170)
o Governing the data barons (182-184)
o When data speaks, and, Even bigger data (189-197)

On Page 197, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier observe, “What we are able yo collect and process will always be just a tiny fraction of the information that exists in the world. It can only be a simulacrum of reality, like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. Because we can never have perfect information, our predictions are inherently fallible. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, only that hey are always incomplete. It doesn’t negate the insights that big data offers, but it puts big data in its place — as a tool that doesn’t offer ultimate answers, just good-enough ones to help us now until better methods and hence better answers come along. It also suggests that we must use this tool with a generous degree of humility…..and humanity.”

I realize that no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the material that Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier provide in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how to leverage Big Data applications and capabilities to transform how they live, work, and think.

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