nakedcapitalism | It has long been the case that “Big Data” has been treated as a magical, unstoppable force that will reap power and profits for those who can channel it effectively. In the 2016 Presidential election, the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee relied heavily on Ada (named after Lord Byron’s mathematician daughter, a perfect identitarian for Clintonian Democrats, combining as she does into one symbolic person aristocratic status, the creative class, feminism and computing). Ada was the Democrats’ attempt at a Big Data Election-Winning Machine, apparently created for it in secret in a dark cave at the top of a mountain by Eric Schmidt and unknown coding slaves who were probably killed as soon as Eric carried his prize down the mountain to Hillary’s waiting arms.
That last part is made up.
But the Democrats did have Ada, which only top aides were allowed to use or even see. Very little is known about Ada, because (spoiler alert) Clinton lost and the brain trust leading the party (if you can call it that) didn’t want anyone to focus on their incompetence and wasteful spending because RUSSIA. Ada said Wisconsin was a safe state. Ada said paying Jay Z to perform would win Ohio. Ada failed, along with Clinton.
Yet now there are rumblings that there is a REAL Death Star, a Big Data system perfect in its design, malevolent in its intent, and all-powerful in its capacity to segment and manipulate every human being on Earth. (No, not the NSA – how silly of you to worry about an arm of the government!) It’s Cambridge Analytica, of which Robert Mercer, right wing hedge fund billionaire, is a major investor. That Robert Mercer, who backed Donald Trump, the crazy-haired real estate hair and game show host who won the 2016 Presidential election.
The thinking is, now that Trump has access to all that otherwise completely benign NSA data, he and Mercer can conspire to feed all of America into the gaping maw of this algorithmic monster, and manipulate otherwise good-thinking Americans into…I’m not sure, exactly. Trump already won the Presidency. The Republican Party – the party notably less aligned with Silicon Valley, although that is rapidly changing because Silicon Valley boys know to go where the money is – is already so dominant, it controls not only every branch of the Federal Government,1 but such a large percentage of the states it only needs one or two more to call a Constitutional Convention. It did all of this without an Election-Winning Death Star.
This suggests a number of questions:
- How much should we fear Big Data?
- How much should we fear Cambridge Analytica?
- Are we on the verge having of a new, uniquely powerful propaganda tool?
- And the secret question, the one unsaid in most of these pieces: Can the Democrats get their hands on it to win back power?
The short answers are:
- A lot
- No more or less than every other Big Data operation
All this extensive data gathering and mining of people without their full knowledge and consent is bad. It’s bad when the NSA does it. It’s bad when Facebook does it. It’s bad when Cambridge Analytica does it. There is the potential for tremendous harm. There is also the potential (which is, to some degree, already occurring) for massive manipulation of people’s emotions in new ways. Targeted segmentation and messaging works for many purposes. Here’s a primer.