Friday, November 16, 2012

Conference Notes LAC 2012: Plenary II (Vaidhyanathan Keynote)

Plenary II: Keynote.
Date: October 30, 2012, 9:00am
Speaker: Siva Vaidhyanathan
Topic: "Library Assessment and Big Data: The Need for Ethical, Legal, and Philosophical Analysis."

(As before, any personal impressions or additions I will put in parenthesis. Otherwise, these are my notes as I heard them)

  • Speaker is author of the book The Anarchist in the Library
  • Speaking of Google's mission to digitize all and make it accessible. But don't be fooled; they are a company. We can't let the organization of information and knowledge that we need be governed by one company. 
    • Google gathers all it can in terms of data. It does it then targets advertising very well. 
    • The Google book scan project. Initially, it was to sell digital copies. It went through the courts. However, the main goal was to gather text and data. Google is hoping to crack language codes and semantics, something which is very difficult to do (especially for computers). This helps it improve search, such as completing phrases based on what you type in the search box. It can answer question in English, so to speak. 
  • There is no real account or history of how we got to big data. We are just here, as if it just happened. But it did not just happen. Policies were made. 
  • Big data matters in: 
    • Commercial. What Google does. What Target and Wal-Mart do. What the credit bureaus do. The data selling and buying. 
    • National security, including law enforcement. FBI, NSA, etc. 
    • Science and research. There is research money here. 
  • Those gathering the big data have no incentive to stop or curb their practices. Not even any ethical discussions. 
  • Two major motivating ideologies: 
    • Market fundamentalism. Belief that the markets solve it all.
    • Technofundamentalism. Making a better device than the one before will solve the problem (then rinse and repeat, so to speak).
  • Another issue was the rise of consumer credit. This set patterns for companies to manipulate big data. This led to things like banks creating products such as derivatives, and we know the mess that turned out to be. 
  • Surveillance is not just the government. Companies are doing it too: Facebook, Google, so on. 
    • Allusion to the Panopticon idea. (self-reminder to also check notes from Doyle lecture on this topic at Berea College, which I have to post here sometime). We have invited this environment by democracy according to Foucault. The speaker says this notion, Foucault's, is wrong, but the surveillance is there. The speaker is not sure Foucault has the evidence.
    • The speaker argues it is not an obvious panopticon. It is more a cryptopticon, where the extent of the surveillance and tracking is not really known or fully understood. 
  • In terms of security, government security agencies are buying data from the market players and companies (hey, your tax dollars at work). Contribute to Facebook, for instance, and you are contributing to the NSA in all likelihood. 
  • Problems with American surveillance: the false positives and the false negatives. For instance, the no-fly lists. A flaw used to be, supposedly changed by now that bad credit could get you in a no-fly list. 
  • Film to watch: The Lives of Others.
  • See Chris Anderson's article for Wired magazine, dated 6/23/08, on "The End of Theory: the Data Deluge Makes Scientific Data Obsolete." 
    • Speaker describes article as arguing for the "googleization" of everything. A bit of hyperbole. 
  • An error occurs in assuming data is everything. 
  • The digital divide. 
  • Summary: 
    • Big, ethical, legal questions. Mistake is inventing things and asking questions later. In this case, we can avoid peril, and librarians can help (did not say a whole lot on how, but by this point, the lecture was getting to the end). 
  • From the Q&A: 
    • Selectivity criteria altered in big data. Mistake to think that with more data you lessen bias. 
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On a side note, Brian Mathews, The Ubiquitous Librarian, listened to this lecture, and he asks a question or two in his post "Are you the process or product"? 

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