The Age of Data, Not Facts [Trend Report]

If risk modeling - using notions of statistical normality - was the defining research technique of the 19th and 20th centuries, sentiment analysis is the defining one of the emerging digital era.

-Will Davies, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Goldsmiths

Traditional authorities, including churches, unions, mainstream politic, but also government-backed statistics agencies, public service broadcasters and traditional cultural tastemakers, have seen a loss of their credibility. They are now competing with the new institutions of the digital age.

IMDb allows its users to rate and obtain ratings of the latest releases, bypassing traditional movie critics. The Brexit leave-camp bypassed the authoritative facts and predictions put forward by the remain-camp. These predictions were backed by a large number of credible and ‘official’ institutions. Millions of blogs and alternative news outlets, channeled by social media, have altered the way in which content is served to us from day to day, bypassing public service news programs and newspapers of record.

In this article, we will explore some of the further consequences and explanations of these developments. What are the driving forces behind them? And what can we expect of them in the future?

Trend #1

We now live in the age of data, not facts

#value_based #digital_disruption #networked_world #populism

We no longer have stable, ‘factual’ representations of the world, but unprecedented new capacities to sense and monitor what is bubbling up where, who’s feeling what, what’s the general vibe.

-Will Davies, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Goldsmiths

Data giants such as Alphabet (Google) have thrived their ability to measure behaviors, sentiments and predictions derived from their immerse data yields. Data saved, released and analysed from online behavior is far more numerous than any collection of data in the analog era. Moreover, analysis of online behavior has a higher representability than any survey-based consumer research could achieve.

Facebook controls and selects news stories based on your preferences, so you’ll end up reading content you tend to agree with. The social media platform has become the dominant source for news, according to Fortune.

Moreover, effective scaremongering, as exemplified by Trump and the Brexit Leave camp, is based on simple, but surprising and concrete statements. Research by the MIT Media Lab, tracking political conversations on Twitter, demonstrates how the discussion focussed on immigrants pathway to citizenship. Then, after Trump’s campaign gained momentum, people started to talk about walls rather than pathways to citizenship.

These political statements are neither viable (Trump’s wall) nor true (e.g. the Brexit Leave camp’s 350m/week statement) but catch on because they are simple, surprising and concrete responses to gut feelings held by a large portion of the population.

Thus, the ‘facts’ of the 21th century are contested, rightfully or wrongfully. They appeal to people because of the way they are spread and constructed. Their perceived truth is based on public appeal. Once such a statement catches on, its perceived truth is propelled forward by social media.

Trend #2

Capitalism is watching you

#digital_disruption #surveillance

While surveillance capitalism taps the invasive powers of the Internet as the source of capital formation and wealth creation, it is now poised to transform commercial practice across the real world too.

-Shoshana Zuboff, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School

Since the beginning of the 21th century, a model of capitalism has developed that underlies the succes of all services-focused tech giants. Surveillance capitalism adds up to production-based capitalism and speculation-based capitalism, and is, according to Zuboff, ’based on fortune telling and selling’. Surveillance capitalism, at its core, is based on capital accumulation by mobilising some form of hidden surpluses that can be commodified.

How does capitalism based on surveillance work? First, user data is collected by providing a free-to-use online service. Second, this data is analysed and turned into ‘prediction products’. Third, these products are sold on the market for future behavior. In addition, service delivery platforms such as Amazon depend heavily on user data collected from their own customers to predict future buying behavior.

There’s one major caveat, however. Capturing and steering brand and product preferences resembles a zero-sum game. Therefore, the market for prediction products has comparatively little impact on economic growth, according to Zuboff.

Trend #3

Open / closed set the new political stage

#inclusive_societies #networked_world #populism #globalisation

Hyper-globalization in trade and finance, intended to create seamlessly integrated world markets, tore domestic societies apart. The bigger surprise is the decidedly right-wing tilt the political reaction has taken.

-Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government

The left has lost its relevance for many of its age-old supporters, and many of them have backed the recent rise of populism. In Europe and the US, this turn of events has a right-wing touch to it. Two topics, migration and nationalism, have set the agenda for populist parties. Not surprising then, is that migration was found to be judged the most important topic in the previous year, according to this report. According to Rodrik,

‘A crucial difference between the right and the left is that the right thrives on deepening divisions in society – “us” versus “them” – while the left, when successful, overcomes these cleavages through reforms that bridge them. Hence the paradox that earlier waves of reforms from the left – Keynesianism, social democracy, the welfare state – both saved capitalism from itself and effectively rendered themselves superfluous. Absent such a response again, the field will be left wide open for populists and far-right groups, who will lead the world – as they always have – to deeper division and more frequent conflict.’

However, as The Economist reports in an article, ‘right’ and ‘left’ are the wrong concepts to point out what’s happening. Rather, the contest is between open against closed. To put it differently, it’s about building walls and xenophobia versus embracing the fruits of globalisation and welcoming foreign workers.

Open politics group together Hillary’s supporters and the moderate share of GOP’s business lobby, who might or might not swing to the other side. Open politics set apart ‘Third-way’-socialists from old-school socialists. In the Netherlands, it’s the social-liberal democrats (D66) versus the populists propagating pro-working class policies (PVV).