How Democracy Can Survive Big Data

Colin Koopman in The New York Times: “…The challenge of designing ethics into data technologies is formidable. This is in part because it requires overcoming a century-long ethos of data science: Develop first, question later. Datafication first, regulation afterward. A glimpse at the history of data science shows as much.

The techniques that Cambridge Analytica uses to produce its psychometric profiles are the cutting edge of data-driven methodologies first devised 100 years ago. The science of personality research was born in 1917. That year, in the midst of America’s fevered entry into war, Robert Sessions Woodworth of Columbia University created the Personal Data Sheet, a questionnaire that promised to assess the personalities of Army recruits. The war ended before Woodworth’s psychological instrument was ready for deployment, but the Army had envisioned its use according to the precedent set by the intelligence tests it had been administering to new recruits under the direction of Robert Yerkes, a professor of psychology at Harvard at the time. The data these tests could produce would help decide who should go to the fronts, who was fit to lead and who should stay well behind the lines.

The stakes of those wartime decisions were particularly stark, but the aftermath of those psychometric instruments is even more unsettling. As the century progressed, such tests — I.Q. tests, college placement exams, predictive behavioral assessments — would affect the lives of millions of Americans. Schoolchildren who may have once or twice acted out in such a way as to prompt a psychometric evaluation could find themselves labeled, setting them on an inescapable track through the education system.

Researchers like Woodworth and Yerkes (or their Stanford colleague Lewis Terman, who formalized the first SAT) did not anticipate the deep consequences of their work; they were too busy pursuing the great intellectual challenges of their day, much like Mr. Zuckerberg in his pursuit of the next great social media platform. Or like Cambridge Analytica’s Christopher Wylie, the twentysomething data scientist who helped build psychometric profiles of two-thirds of all Americans by leveraging personal information gained through uninformed consent. All of these researchers were, quite understandably, obsessed with the great data science challenges of their generation. Their failure to consider the consequences of their pursuits, however, is not so much their fault as it is our collective failing.

For the past 100 years we have been chasing visions of data with a singular passion. Many of the best minds of each new generation have devoted themselves to delivering on the inspired data science promises of their day: intelligence testing, building the computer, cracking the genetic code, creating the internet, and now this. We have in the course of a single century built an entire society, economy and culture that runs on information. Yet we have hardly begun to engineer data ethics appropriate for our extraordinary information carnival. If we do not do so soon, data will drive democracy, and we may well lose our chance to do anything about it….(More)”.