Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier’s book, Big Data: A Revolution that will transform how we live and think (2013), prepares you for the world of big data, the world we now live in. Honestly, I don’t know how I got by without this book before now. Sure, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier might be a little gung ho about the concept of big data, but there is plenty of useful information between the covers of this survival guide for big data. An easy read, this book is simple enough for the technical naïve to finish with a thorough understanding of big data.
Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier do a good job delineating big data from statistics. Statistics arose out of necessity when it became too costly and time consuming to gather an entire set of data. But nowadays literally analyzing an entire population is a reality with little extra time or cost. Being able to do this changes everything. Statistics is a hard-and-fast method for analyzing large populations so it makes sense that people don’t necessarily want to let go of it. Statisticians are skeptical of big data because it is a messy science. However, throughout the book the authors maintain that the sheer size of big data makes up for any shortcomings due to errors.
The history of data is particularly interesting. Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier explain the evolution of big data using nicely contemplated examples from the past and present. They talk about how humans have been keeping track of things ever since civilization began in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. They refer to the 1880 US Census that took a whopping 8 years to complete which consequently spurred the first automated data collection in the following census (pp. 21-22). I loved hearing the story of Commander Maury, who turned an unfortunate incident that put him behind a desk into an opportunity to revolutionize sailing methods by analyzing data from torn and tattered ship logs (pp. 73-76). It was even interesting hearing the not so distant history of companies like Google and Amazon, though not as fun as the older stuff.
All their ambitious ideas about big data are tempered with the ethical discussions that concern everyone. Privacy is a big one. Many people do not know how much personal information is being gleaned from our data exhaust. It’s creepy! The causation vs correlation argument is something that should concern people if we end up in a world like Minority Report. There is certainly a lot of good that can come of predicting things using correlations, but we should draw the line somewhere. Also, we should be worried about the immense power wielded by those who have all of the data.
The only criticisms I have are that it gets a little repetitive and a little preachy. In their defense, the authors want to hammer home certain key points for the sake of our future. After all, the book is about understanding the concept of data which continues to grow, expand and improve at an exponential rate. We are in the midst of the biggest informational revolution since the Gutenberg press. This comprehensive book has everything you need to know about big data. Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier keep it interesting with fun examples to explain it all. It’s a big data world out there. After reading this book I understand it a little better.
Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K. (2013). Big data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.