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Is Big Data Doing More Harm Than Good?

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,In 1931, a 25 year-old Austrian named Kurt Gödel defied logic, literally, with his incompleteness theorems which proved that every formal system eventually fails. What made this discovery even more devastating was that Gödel himself was a logician and his theorems took the form of a logical proof. Essentially, he used logic to kill logic.

Of course, the systems we rely on every day are not formal logical systems. They’re far more vulnerable. From flaws in the design of their hardware and software, to errors in how data is collected, analyzed and used to make decisions, real-world technologies are riddled with weaknesses.

Nevertheless, in the era of big data, we’ve given these systems enormous power over us and how we run our enterprises. Today, algorithms can help determine what college we go to, who gets hired for a job and even who goes to prison and for how long. We have, seemingly unwittingly, outsourced judgment to machines and, unlike humans, we rarely question them.

Phantom Data

Numbers that show up on a computer screen take on a special air of authority. Data are pulled in through massive databases and analyzed through complex analytics software. Eventually, they make their way to Excel workbooks, where they are massaged further into clear metrics for decision making.

But where does the all that data come from? In many cases, from lowly paid, poorly trained front-line employees recording information on clipboards as part of their daily drudgery. Data, as it’s been said, is the plural of anecdote and is subject to error. We can — and should — try to minimize these errors whenever we can, but we will likely never eliminate them entirely.

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