Transcript of “Big data is better data”

Self-driving cars were just the start. What’s the future of big data-driven technology and design? In a thrilling science talk, Kenneth Cukier looks at what’s next for machine learning — and human knowledge.

from Pocket

This is a good (and pithy) talk, but there are two points he makes that I find particularly interesting:

  1. We have to be the master of this technology, not its servant […] This is a tool, but this is a tool that, unless we’re careful, will burn us“. A patent warning against technological determinism, here, but one which (in my opinion) is not necessarily couched with enough care to help us to understand how to avoid a fully instrumentalist approach.
  2. Humanity can finally learn from the information that it can collect, as part of our timeless quest to understand the world and our place in it“. This accompanies a strong sense of why Big Data is important, but it’s also very essentialist: it’s about reflecting the here and now, rather than attempting to understand the past. I wonder if there are some historiographical problems here, given that Big Data collection is so recent and new, and still so patchy in places. The ‘timeless quest’, given this, seems to be one which will be answered from a position of privilege: from those who are fortunate enough, paradoxically, to have data collected about them.

“We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far”

What a corker of a song. The Buggles, from The Age of Plastic, 1979.

in my mind and in my car

However you name it, cybercultures, or internet studies, is our perspective on history. In this song, The Buggles nostalgically lament the loss of knowledge of bygone technologies, and they blame new technologies for this, rather than the humans who created them, or any of the socio-cultural or socio-material contexts which gave rise to it.

put the blame on VCR

This represents to me a decentring of human intention, but perhaps not in a way completely conducive with socio-material theories. This brings to mind the criticism of actor-network theory by McClean and Hassard (2004): they argued that it’s inevitably ethnocentric because we’re the ones explaining the network and making the connections. They quote Bloomfield and Vurdubakis (1999):

How can we re-present Other times and Other places with only the tools of Here and Now with which to do it? (p. 631)

Sterne raised the possibility of historiographical gaps in our narrative of cybercultures. But it may be worth taking this further. Is there a historiographical problem in general with our current perspective on cybercultures? Is our (natural?) nostalgia for the past – discussions of the noise that dial-up internet made, the Nokia 3310, fixing a VCR with a pencil, etc. – actually damaging for the way that we understand our interaction with technology now? And, if so, does this cross over into the way we think about using technology in our teaching?


Bloomfield, B. P., & Vurdubakis, T. (1999). The Outer Limits: Monsters, Actor Networks and the Writing of Displacement. Organization, 6(4), 625–647.
McLean, C., & Hassard, J. (2004). Symmetrical Absence/Symmetrical Absurdity: Critical Notes on the Production of Actor-Network Accounts. Journal of Management Studies, 41(3), 493–519.
Silver, D., Massanari, A., & Sterne, J. (Eds.). (2006). The Historiography of Cyberculture. In Critical cyberculture studies (pp. 17–28). New York: New York University Press.