“We urgently need to safeguard free will in the age of big data”

Dr Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is the Oxford Internet Institute’s Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation. The focus of his research is the role of information in a networked economy, and he has published widely around this subject. As co-author of the recent Big Data: a revolution that will transform how we live, work and think, he has become an expert on the ways big data could change our lives – for better or worse.


Interview by Alasdair MacKinnon


While researching your latest book, what applications did you find for Big Data in education? How else is Big Data benefiting the world?


Big Data is going to change education fundamentally. Before, we had very limited amounts of data on what works in education and what does not – both in the aggregate and more granular, even down to the individual as well. In the future, textbook authors will find out what parts of their books work and which need to be redrafted, teachers will know how better to communicate to particular classes and students. Educational institutions will make improved choices on what tools, and which materials to use, and what teacher works best for which class.


This reflects the power of big data more generally: that with huge quantities of data we can gain insights that we could not with smaller amounts, and these insights will improve decision-making in all aspects of our society.


Is the attention being given to Big Data just hype? In what genuinely novel ways does it improve on traditional methods, other than in scale?


As in other areas, a change of scale leads to a change in substance. Hence, in the big data age, the way we humans make sense of the world around us will change. For instance, we will no longer be constrained to use small random samples that hamper hypothesis testing and slow scientific discovery. We will re-evaluate the need for data of high quality. And we will often use correlational analysis rather than causal investigations as we realise that knowing “what” is often better than searching for the elusive “why”. More generally, we will understand that data is valuable beyond the primary purpose for which it was collected.


Some Big Data pioneers see it as the end of scientific theory, a new way of perfectly picturing the world or predicting the future. Are they missing something?


This I believe mixes two claims together. The first is the end of theory. That is preposterous. In the age of Big Data we continue to need theories. But the role of hypotheses derived from these theories will change. The second claim is that we will be able to perfectly predict the future. That, too, is wrong, BUT our predictions will become much, much better than today. And using predictions that are right only 80% of the time is still much better than having only a 50:50 chance.


PRISM showed the extent to which Big Data had already eroded privacy. Attaining the ability to analyse and extrapolate vast, or even complete, data sets, could have frightening implications, verging on the totalitarian. How can we lessen the threat Big Data poses to personal freedom?


The core threat of PRISM is not a threat to our privacy, but that big data predictions of human behaviour utilising PRISM data will be abused to punish people before they have committed an action. Thinking in books and movies, the danger is less “1984” than “Minority Report”. We need to urgently put safeguards in place to protect human free will in the age of big data, and to update and broaden our sense of justice.


Oxford University prides itself on its face-to-face tutorial system. Is education, in striving to become massive and global, missing the point – that what it is fundamentally about is the personal interaction between teacher and pupil?


No. Oxford is an expensive anomaly. As a result it does not scale and remains a niche, an elite institution that restricts who can access it. I do not think that is a suitable recipe for the world. For billions of people we need to have education institutions that are able to combine high quality educational experiences with volume – big data is a key technology to help make this work.


How do new mass media technologies and the Internet change education, in your experience?


I think it is too early to tell – and my subjective impressions are likely biased. It’s exactly this kind of highly subjective bias that we can move away from in the big data age and replace it with sound data.


What do you expect to gain from ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2013?


To engage in stimulating and exciting dialogues about the future of education – and to gain new insights. This is perhaps one of the most exciting times in the area of education in a century, and it is thrilling to be part of it.


Expect to hear more about this fascinating and controversial topic at this year’s ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN, at which Dr Viktor Mayer Schönberger will be appearing as a keynote speaker, as will Jeanne Meister, Dr Jeff Borden and Prof Mitchell Stevens. Visit the conference website to find out more and register. 

2 Responses

  1. Rupert G

    But PRISM IS a threat to privacy, and though I agree with Dr Mayer-Schönberger that all this data will end up being used to ‘predict’ possible criminal outcomes. The right to privacy is important in that people act differently both emotionally and physically if they feel they are being watched. It’s stressful and dangerous.


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