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Ben Childs

Digital designer and data visualiser

11th Apr: Currently focussing on...Automating design system workflows and learning Python for data visualisation on DataCamp

From 2017 – 2019, I studied MA Digital Media & Society at the University of Sheffield. The course allowed me to explore technology from a sociological perspective, and to develop my writing skills and critical thinking. This article is based on an assignment for one of the course modules.

19th December 2017


How has the status of data in society changed in recent years?

Usage of the term 'data' has transformed from the geeky domain of computer storage to a mainstream concept that is prevalent in our awareness of how we use the internet and how our digital behaviour is monitored and used to represent us.

The seismic shift in the value and importance of data has been due to technological advances that allow the storage of vast amounts of data and crucially the ability to process it – typically referred to as 'big data' (although what might be regarded as 'big' is continually changing). To understand how the status of data has changed, I first investigated the history of big data and how Web 2.0 – the 'social web' – reframed what the internet is.

Making sense of the world using big data is achieved using automated, computed decisioning using algorithms, a simple approach that frequently calculates vastly complex outcomes, often without any means of us interrogating or deconstructing how they were produced. Yet contexts such as advertising and political campaigns which depend on predicting social behaviour, invest and strategise based on the algorithmic 'insights' produced from big data.

The future of our societies will be highly informed and the outcome of the world as a whole will probably fundamentally be decided by how we use big data. Big data has the potential to have dramatic impact on the future of people's lives and on our planet, but we need to understand how to effect positive social outcomes whilst big data is used (and abused) by the capitalist powers that own and control the data.

Investigating big data was a deeply impactful part of studying MA Digital Media & Society. I have never been a huge user of social media, but as a digital professional studying the topic I felt a vast responsibility and significant conflict between the technological opportunity and the social impact of how we use big data, one which will likely be an uncomfortable abrasion for the rest of my digital career.

Download the full article11 pages, PDF format

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