Review: Silicon Valley Comes to the UK: the “Big Data Summit” at Cambridge University

Venue: Lady Mitchell Hall, the University of Cambridge. 8th November: 2013.

“Silicon Valley Comes to the UK brings leading Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders to the UK to explore ideas and to ignite local entrepreneurship.” (http://www.svc2uk.com/about/)

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Social and cultural theory is inherently pessimistic and shrouded in pessimism and this becomes ever so apparent when attending talks and conferences that showcase new techno-scientific innovations. Silicon Valley Comes to the UK was a display of sheer technological-optimism that innovators, developers, entrepreneurs (or “capitalists”) radiate when discussing current realities and future possibilities. The question that rattles through the brain is: “is this just blind-faith in technology?” The even more worrying question for anyone critically in-tuned is: “What is being hidden?” or: “What aren’t we being told here?” As a starting point, the very fact that six speakers can speak of a unified vision of entire world change without challenge is extremely disconcerting.

The big word I was alerted to in tonight’s discussions about Big Data is not ‘data’, ‘algorithms’, ‘communications’, ‘storage’, ‘volume’, ‘velocity’, ‘adaptability’, ‘talent’, ‘access’ or ‘aid’ but the unchallenged, inconsiderate and unjustified use of the word “We”. Ethnocentrism – i.e. imposing a culture’s values and beliefs onto other groups – has been a debate raging at the heart of culture studies, anthropology and sociology and a problem that remains widely discussed but entirely unresolved. Nevertheless, technological-optimists of the military and corporate world seem to override these issues as they crack on with converting everyone and everything into data, algorithms, pixels, nodes, blips, stats, charts and PowerPoint presentations, for “Our” own good “We” are told.

Firstly, let me just outline the fact that I have at no stage offered consent to being included under the umbrella that the word “We” represents. Therefore, anyone wishing to use to word “We” in reference to every human being around the world would need my consent before doing so. Furthermore, I would just like to add, that if I do decide to opt out of “The Singularity”, then I would also like to hold the right to sue anyone claiming The Singularity to be entirely singular, since without my participation, it wouldn’t be true.
Therefore, I find it incredibly difficult then when John Katzman from Noodle Education states, without any hesitation, that: “It turns out that We all agree on what the K12 system is supposed to do!” – referring to the data analysis software which will monitor the performance of students after they leave school to offer a more flexible or adaptive learning environment: algorithmic software that “learns your learning style”. His justification we that ‘We want students that are going to survive and thrive in the world economy… who are going to have jobs and not be unemployed and make enough money to be happy with those jobs. We want people who are giving back to the community, they vote and they treat each other well, and, give to charity, and finally we want happy people who have low obesity, low alcoholism, low suicide rates, and, err, high metrics for contentment’.

Personally, I don’t quite remember “Us” being asked about whether or not “We” wanted any or all of those things? In regard to Katzman’s comments on the moderated consumption of alcohol, I personally know a few hardened drinkers who would fail to agree on his comments: lessening the extent to which his “We” statements hold to be universally true. Furthermore, How I interpret the use of software that monitors students income levels, alcohol consumption or classroom performance is: “if you are a non-performative student without talents to suit our system then your after-school, career-life (working in McDonalds, perhaps) can be better predetermined by our talent-seeking software.” Again, if “We” are implementing such a system to improve our performativity, I don’t quite remember opting, voting or offering consent for inclusion. It is just going to happen since “We all” want it. At this point in the talk I began to loose faith in democracy of the digital sort – this just sounds like American top-down dictation of the sort Henry Ford used to promote.

It is not just “Us” that are being affected by this big push towards the “We-society” but it seems that “We” are also busy extending “Our” global embrace into areas of “Our” globe that we have left untouched. Megan Smith from Google (x) pointed out that ‘Europe is incredibly connected and 900 million people in Africa are not in the conversation’. Smith then refers to these people as “our colleagues” while explaining how in the future the global embrace will be extended towards these disconnected regions. ‘Also NGOs’, she claims, ‘will no longer kind of boss people around with an aim of what you should do, but instead transition that to the talent networks and find out what those guys want to do’ – I am presuming here that Smith hasn’t asked the 900 million disconnected people in Africa whether or not they wish to connect to our Western “innovation network” or not. It would seem that without any kind of democratic procedure or qualitative assessment, like Katzman, their consent is already presumed or taken as a granted.

In a recent conversation with a fellow student who had spent three months cycling down through Africa she told me a story about how while in Ethiopia the children there came running up to her and were laughing out loud as she tried to cycle up a hill. She described them as having fresh skin, healthy bodies and bright white teeth with massive smiles. – My reaction to this was wrong, therefore, I apologise in advance but this mistake itself is significant. – I was taken back by her story, shocked, since what has been imbedded in my mind when hearing the word “Ethiopia” is images transmitted through the mainstream media in England during the 1980s – around the same time that Band Aid had released their number-one pop song Feed The World. During that time, images to famine and starving children were pumped into the living rooms of families thorough the UK. To hear her reports of healthy children in Ethiopia, then, contradicted this collective-memory stored in my mind. That was significant. Without the media, without being connected, it was only her words, her personal account or her personal experience, that challenged this preconception in my mind.

Although I am not immediately connected to these people in Ethiopia, I wish for it to remain this way. Although I am not immediately connected to those children, I am happy they are smiling, running, jumping and happy. In light of this, I can not help but wonder, where is the qualitative evidence can prove that there is a fundament need for these children to be connected to Western media networks to improve their lives and increase their happiness? Where is the comparative qualitative evidence to suggest that Western children are far happier than these Ethiopian children? It seems that we are hell bent on refining and understanding Big Data but have yet to consider further the philosophical or qualitative question regarding human-happiness. In terms of human welfare, I would rather approach that question first before encoding everyone of “Us” into a data-riddled format with the aim of securing and standardising a lifelong happiness for All – regardless of individual or collective consent. Agree with them or not, Western, democratic-ethnocentrism is going global and “We” are all onboard.

James E. Addicott: jea56@cam.ac.uk
@james_addicott
PhD Student @ University of Cambridge #cybernetics #culture#sociology #semiotics #actor-network #criticalrealism #posthuman

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