Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Science Fiction Writers to Speculate on Big Data Big Brother at Worldcon

Just in case you live under a rock and didn't know, World Science Fiction convention, or Worldcon for short, happens once per year, in a different city around the world. This year, I’m lucky enough to have it practically in my own back yard, in the city of San Antonio, Texas. In honor of this year’s location, it’s also known as #LoneStarCon 3 since this is the third time in 70 years that Worldcon has been in Texas. Unlike Comic con, Worldcon tends to consist mainly of writers, editors, illustrators, publishers and readers, and not many movie stars. It’s a celebration of speculative literature. The Hugo awards for the best of this year’s science fiction writing are voted on and awarded there. It is an amazing gathering of imaginative geeky geniuses and the people who love them.

Worldcon 71 LoneStarCon 3

When I’m not writing science fiction and fantasy stories under my maiden name, Paige E. Ewing, I play with and talk about big data analytics technology in my day job. This year, I will have the honor of participating in the programming at Worldcon. One of the panel discussions that I will be participating in is called “Big Data, Check. Next Stop: Big Brother?” So, next Labor Day weekend, a bunch of other science fiction writers and I will discuss the implications of big data in our society. (Yes, I have to say, there are days when my life is unbelievably cool.) Among the folks on the panel will be Brenda Cooper (Jon Picacio did that gorgeous cover art!), Will Frank, Jason Hough, Chris N. Brown and David Brin.

To kick the ball off right, our friendly neighborhood panel moderator, Will Frank, sent an email out to all the folks on the panel, asking essentially where everyone stood on the subject. That kicked off one heck of an interesting email thread. I got permission from my fellow panelists to share some of the discussion on my blog.

First off, Will Frank wanted to know if we were divided enough to make the conversation into a debate. He felt, “Somewhere between skeptical and paranoid about the way our data is being collected and used,” and asked if we felt the same way, or if there were any, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” folks on the panel. The answers he got made it clear that this wasn’t such a black and white issue.

Jason Hough, in his day job as a product manager with a large telecom company, worked on a context-aware prediction engine, which used information sources on a smartphone to infer context. It then used sophisticated machine learning algorithms to predict things about the user like when he would next be home, or would next use FaceBook. The purpose of the project was innocuous: to save battery life by shutting down unneeded functions, such as turning off WiFi until the user was predicted to be near a hotspot he commonly used.

That project gave Hough an interesting perspective, though.

“What most people don’t realize is how easy it is to infer context from a few simple bits of data (location+noise profile+motion detector=in a nightclub dancing), and that you can predict with surprising accuracy what someone will do next with only a few weeks’ worth of data to crunch.”

Chris N. Brown chimed in next.

“I think Big Data is the human genome of product placement. The technology that has the greatest potential to realize the kind of cultural environment darkly parodied by PKD [Phillip K. Dick] in “Ubik,” where everything around you is really an advertisement or some other well-designed effort to trick you out of some money and influence your behavior to better serve capital.”

The future, to Brown, looks like a panopticon, where everything can be perceived and nothing can successfully be hidden.

“In the imminent world without secrets, we probably need to think in different ways about our rights to the data about ourselves and how the powers that come with access to the big databases are governed.”

Brenda Cooper had a more positive spin on the future of Big Data. “I think we’re going to get more value out of big data than damage.” She tempered that by pointing out that aspects of the current big data situation, such as PRISM are certainly frightening.

“But big data will let us learn a lot about how to save the earth, about health and medicine, etc.”

David Brin, who is both a science and science fiction author, commented on Cooper’s relatively positive outlook. “Brenda hinted at the vital thing … to refuse to accept dichotomies or the notion of “tradeoffs” between security and freedom.” His view was cautiously balanced.

“Without this attitude, the info age will be hell. With it, there are great possibilities.”

I’ve probably spent too much of my life blogging, as I couldn’t contribute to the discussion without throwing in links to a Machine Learning + Predictive Analytics = Psychohistory post from a few months back, and to this article from Time magazine that seemed spot on relevant to the discussion, “Big Data, Meet Big Brother.”

My own opinions on the subject are solidly on both sides of the fence. The loss of privacy in the information age, and the threat to civil liberties from our government’s efforts to keep a big brotherly eye on us, are both deeply disturbing. But with my job, I’ve also got a front row seat for the revolution. I see the very real benefits big data analytics bring to the table on a daily basis.

I’ve seen energy efficiency improvements in data centers, and seen pilot smart grid projects that could have serious impacts over time on the world ecology. Advances in chemistry, biology, astronomy, physics, and a dozen other pure sciences have been enabled by this next-gen leap forward in data crunching power. Health information exchanges and diagnostic expert systems are revolutionizing healthcare. Big data analytics are even helping farmers increase food yields. This technology could bring us to an age of incredible health and prosperity.

But will all this also bring us to a Minority Report world where people are arrested because the data says they will PROBABLY commit a crime? Or a world like Brown and PDK envisioned with constant manipulation to buy, consume, and conform? If we see such a disturbing future coming, is there something we can do to steer our world in better directions? I have no answers, only more questions.

Questions that I know will be very thoughtfully and intelligently addressed at Worldcon at the end of next month. I suspect it will be one of the most interesting discussions I’ve ever been a part of.

David Brin’s comment on my rambling email rant seemed like the best advice for dealing with the course of big data analytics in the current political climate. And he elaborated on this exact thought yesterday in an opinion piece in the NY Times, "If You Can’t Hide From Big Brother, Adapt"

“A fascinating missive, Paige. And it leaves me more convinced than ever, that the core method should be to shine light at the mighty forces who are shining light at us.”

If Will Frank was hoping for a debate, I don't think he's going to get it on this. I completely agree, and I think it's the one thing we can all agree on. The only problem I see is that shining light on the government is becoming a more and more difficult thing to accomplish.

I'd like to add just one more bit of information from a true data scientist, someone whose expertise in the field of big data analytics is way beyond mine. Dr. Melinda Thielbar wrote a post about this same subject earlier this month, "Metadata, PRISM, and How Identity Resolution Can Protect All of Us". Melinda Thielbar doesn't write science fiction. She lives it.

"Analysis doesn’t end a conversation. It starts a conversation, but the citizens of this country aren’t allowed to talk about what’s happening because it’s too dangerous for us to know.

I’d argue it’s too dangerous for us to be in the dark."


  1. Just one comment on Melinda Thielbar. I sort of implied that she doesn't write fiction. Not true. She just doesn't write sci fi. She writes educational mystery stories for kids, to teach math concepts.

  2. A nice, insightful survey, Paige. Thoughtful.