After returning home from SxSW Interactive last week, I began thinking about some of the major themes I heard from this year’s speakers and panelists. Now with an event as large as SxSW, a person’s perspective will vary depending on what events and sessions he or she goes to. That being said, I think it’s fair to say that it is still possible to find a prevailing direction or theme that hangs in the air and touches all attendees. It is this overall theme that describes where the great minds presenting at SxSW think the world is headed. After some thought, I would say that the prevailing theme at this year’s festival was Big Data and Analytics. In non-nerd terms, the concept of Big Data and Analytics refers to the collection and analysis of massive amounts of data from a wide variety of sources. By studying this data, it is possible to identify patterns in human behavior and in turn, better predict what people will do or want. Assuming the best-case scenario, the proper use of Bid Data would result in products and services brought to you that are specifically tailor to your likes and dislikes, both online and in the real world, Features like Amazon.com’s “Products Recommend For You”, and Netflix’s “Recommended Movies” would play a major role in every aspect of your life. Big Data and analytics already play a big part of our lives. Most major retailers (Target, Walmart, etc.) use some form of analytics to tailor what products we see. Both major US political parties use analytics to maximize fundraising and predict voting patterns. Indeed, the 2012 re-election campaign of President Obama was a case study in the effective use of Big Data and analytics. If the speakers of SxSW are to be believed, the use of these tools will expand to all areas of our lives.
What would the widespread use of Big Data and analytics mean for our everyday lives? In the best-case scenario, it would mean each person see a world largely designed around them. Where ever you go, you will know what stores have exactly what you want, what places you would like, and what restaurants serve your favorite meals. You will be able to surround yourself at all times either with existing friends or people who you should like (based on your predicted preferences). There will be no need to settle for anything less than what you want. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that you will only see those things you DO want. Indeed, many of the day-to-day compromises and annoyances that are part of life will be eliminate.
Given that we seem to be moving in this direction, now would be a good time to ask a few questions about the impact this new world would have on humanity. Is the human race built for a world where we get everything we want? How will this new way of living impact our ability to live together? From a Christian standpoint, what does God’s Word have to say about humanity and its response to world largely devoid of challenges and compromise?
While not specifically delving into the details of Big Data, the New Testament does have something to say about this issue. In Romans, Paul speaks to the young Christian church in Rome. Here, Paul spell out the basics of the Christian faith, as neither he nor any of the Apostles had met with the members of this church before. Part of his letter addresses dealing with difficulty:
1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Here, Paul points out that suffering, while painful, is necessary for personal growth (character) and spiritual maturity (hope). Without this disappointment, it is impossible for us to become the people God made us to be. Put differently, getting everything we want can be bad for our health. This same issue is addressed by the Apostle James:
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Like Paul, James stresses the important role that troubles play in the development of Christians. Our ability to become mature Christians (and better people) is linked to our exposure to problems and challenges. During tough times, we rely on our faith in God and our belief that He will deliver us from our current predicament. When He does deliver us, our belief in Him is strengthened, and we learn that through our faith in God, we can endure more than we could before.
How does all this tie to the Big Data/Analytics-driven world described at SxSW? One could argue that problems and challenges enter our lives only when we don’t get things our way. Difficulties enter our lives when we are forced to see things we had no desire to see, and experience things we didn’t want to experience. One of the primary drivers behind the use of Big Data and Analytics is to distill the all options in world around us to only the things that we want (and will likely buy). If the world around us is tailored made for our enjoyment, we lose our chance become strong. It’s the equivalent of joining a gym with no weights or equipment. Humans only get stronger with resistance training.
What’s your take on Big Data and Analytics?
Sound off in the comments!!!