Technocrats and big data
Today I’m finally getting around to reporting on the congressional subcommittee I went to a few weeks ago on big data and analytics. Needless to say it wasn’t what I’d hoped.
My observations are somewhat disjointed, since there was no coherent discussion, so I guess I’ll just make a list:
- The Congressmen and women seem to know nothing more about the “Big Data Revolution” than what they’d read in the now-famous McKinsey report which talks about how we’ll need 180,000 data scientists in the next decade and how much money we’ll save and how competitive it will make our country.
- In other words, with one small exception I’ll discuss below, the Congresspeople were impressed, even awed, at the intelligence and power of the panelists. They were basically asking for advice on how to let big data happen on a bigger and better scale. Regulation never came up, it was all about, “how do we nurture this movement that is vital to our country’s health and future?”
- There were three useless panelists, all completely high on big data and making their money being like that. First there was a schmuck from the NSF who just said absolutely nothing, had been to a million panels before, and was simply angling to be invited to yet more.
- Next there was a guy who had started training data-ready graduates in some masters degree program. All he ever talked about is how programs like his should be funded, especially his, and how he was talking directly with employers in his area to figure out what to train his students to know.
- It was especially interesting to see how this second guy reacted when the single somewhat thoughtful and informed Congressman, whose name I didn’t catch because he came in and left quickly and his name tag was miniscule, asked him about whether or not he taught his students to be skeptical. The guy was like, I teach my students to be ready to deal with big data just like their employers want. The congressman was like, no that’s not what I asked, I asked whether they can be skeptical of perceived signals versus noise, whether they can avoid making huge costly mistakes with big data. The guy was like, I teach my students to deal with big data.
- Finally there was the head of IBM Research who kept coming up with juicy and misleading pro-data tidbits which made him sound like some kind of saint for doing his job. For example, he brought up the “premature infants are being saved” example I talked about in this post.
- The IBM guy was also the only person who ever mentioned privacy issues at all, and he summarized his, and presumably everyone else’s position on this subject, by saying “people are happy to give away their private information for the services they get in return.” Thanks, IBM guy!
- One more priceless moment was when one of the Congressmen asked the panel if industry has enough interaction with policy makers. The head of IBM Research said, “Why yes, we do!” Thanks, IBM guy!
I was reminded of this weird vibe and power dynamic, where an unchallenged mysterious power of big data rules over reason, when I read this New York Times column entitled Some Cracks in the Cult of Technocrats (hat tip Suresh Naidu). Here’s the leading paragraph:
We are living in the age of the technocrats. In business, Big Data, and the Big Brains who can parse it, rule. In government, the technocrats are on top, too. From Washington to Frankfurt to Rome, technocrats have stepped in where politicians feared to tread, rescuing economies, or at least propping them up, in the process.
The column was written by Chrystia Freeland and it discusses a recent paper entitled Economics versus Politics: Pitfalls of Policy Advice by Daron Acemoglu from M.I.T. and James Robinson from Harvard. A description of the paper from Freeland’s column:
Their critique is not the standard technocrat’s lament that wise policy is, alas, politically impossible to implement. Instead, their concern is that policy which is eminently sensible in theory can fail in practice because of its unintended political consequences.
In particular, they believe we need to be cautious about “good” economic policies that have the side effect of either reinforcing already dominant groups or weakening already frail ones.
“You should apply double caution when it comes to policies which will strengthen already powerful groups,” Dr. Acemoglu told me. “The central starting point is a certain suspicion of elites. You really cannot trust the elites when they are totally in charge of policy.”
Three examples they discuss in the paper: trade unions, financial deregulation in the U.S., privatization in Russia. Examples where something economists suggested would make the system better also acted to reinforce power of already powerful people.
If there’s one thing I might infer from my trip to Washington, it’s that the technocrats in charge nowadays, whose advice is being followed, may have subtly shifted away from deregulation economists and towards big data folks. Not that I’m holding my breath for Bob Rubin to be losing his grip any time soon.