Imagine analyzing our digital footprints to benefit society as a whole, not just a handful of corporate giants. That way “big data” can be a force for good, Alex “Sandy” Pentland argues. Sandy is the co-founder of MIT’s Media Lab and a highly respected pioneer in the field of data analytics. At DLD 2019 in Munich, he will explore Blockchain as a means to create a new, more trustworthy Internet and empower individuals to take control of their own data. He sees it as just one of many ways in which technology can become a tool for building “social capital” – a much-needed resource in modern society, as Sandy explains in our interview.
How can technology measure quality of life?
Data analysis allows us to make visible the invisible. We can literally measure things like inequality on a week-by-week basis and produce a census: a census of inequality, a census of segregation, a census of forced migration. And what we’re seeing is that in many countries people really do live in completely separate worlds. Societies are highly segregated, which is why people don’t believe the same things. Their conversations are around very different realities. The good news is that it’s easy to build tools that measure how segregated your own behavior is and remind you that you might want to make different choices.
Why is that important?
It turns out that very small decisions that we make every day have a big effect. People tend to pick the restaurant or the shop that’s similar to them because it feels the most comfortable. But if we all started to make different choices, even in small ways, the amount of inequality, the amount of segregation in society would drop by almost 50 percent – which is really surprising. My lab created a map for Boston that shows how polarized each place is. For each restaurant and each shop you can see: Is it only poor people who go there? Is it rich people? Is it a mixture of society? You personally can look at how polarized your behavior is by using a map like that. It’s similar to a step counter that tells you how much exercise you’re getting.
Would that be enough to get people out of their comfort zone?
There’s a group of people, typically 15 to 20 percent, who will take it seriously and change their lives. And it would also make the rest of the people aware of the issue. Over time it would become something that people take seriously and then try to change. This is very important because what we call “social capital” has been decreasing throughout Western societies. People don’t interact as much anymore. There’s not as much trust. You might digitally interact with five times as many people as you used to – but you don’t have these close connections in the same way your grandfather did, for instance. Your grandfather had a set of people he interacted with very regularly, and they reached out to him as well. That’s not the way we live today. If you look at data about societies you find that loneliness has increased dramatically, and levels of trust have dropped dramatically. People particularly worry about younger generations in this regard. It’s all these one-way, light interactions rather than the more continued, deeper ones.
What’s the best way to respond to this development?
It’s a question of strengthening the social fabric. How can we build tools that tighten our mutual connections? And I think it starts with making people aware of what’s going on. By giving them the tools to look at their own lives and by provoking discussions you can really begin to turn things around. It doesn’t happen immediately, we can’t push a button and it’s done. But imagine if every Sunday you would look at your newsfeed and there would be a map of social capital by neighborhood. Suddenly you could see, “Oh, my neighborhood is not doing very well. What’s going on?” Wouldn’t that be interesting to know that people are moving out of your neighborhood or that there are fewer social relationships, all these things that you might want to know about quality of life? I think it would be really transformative.