CONTEC Conference 2014: Big Data’s Crystal Ball

In Tech Digest by Saskia Vogel

By Saskia Vogel

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger spoke at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair about Big Data.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger spoke at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair about Big Data.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s vision of how Big Data will revolutionalize our future is as appealing as a cool drink on a hot day—to an extent. Big Data may give us the keys that unlock the mysteries of what consumers do and when, but he warns us to approach Big Data with humility and leave space for creative, irrational human behavior that flies in the face of data.

In his talk at CONTEC yesterday—based on his book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, co-authored by Kenneth Cukier—Mayer-Schönberger ran through scenarios of how a plethora of consumer data can make our lives better. For example, knowing that before a hurricane hits, Walmart should move batteries, flashlights, and the sugary snack Pop Tarts to the front of the store, because this is what consumers buy right then.

More data is good because “If we capture a phenomenon comprehensively, we can let the data speak for itself . . . We can answer questions that come to mind as they come to us, without having to go back and collect data again.”

He uses Amazon as an example: in the company’s early days, the site made recommendations based on pre-determined categories. Now, he says, 30% of the online retailer’s revenue comes from item-by-item recommendations, and category-based recommendations are a thing of their past.

When the volume of data slips into the category of Big Data, we are able to make “causal insights that we think are normal and obvious [but] are not”. Like Pop Tarts before a hurricane. The result of this is that we know what consumers do. And when it comes to retail, knowing what they do is good enough.

When we “data-fy” the world, “our products, insights, and services will change.” He predicts the end of the subject expert, because we will have the data to prove him wrong. For books, he suggests that this will allow authors to find out which chapters readers re-visit and where their readers are. And “A Kindle isn’t just a distribution platform, it’s a data ingestion platform.” He suggested collecting information on the different ways that readers interact with books—a notion that sounds easier said than done. This bright future improved by data sounds fantastic, but also problematic when it comes to proprietary data and competition. What happens to small businesses if they don’t have data or can’t collect the data themselves? •

About the Author

Saskia Vogel


Saskia Vogel is a writer and a Swedish-to-English translator. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, The White Review, Sight&Sound, and The Offing. Her debut novel, I Am a Pornographyer, will be published in 2019 by Dialogue Books/Little, Brown (UK), Coach House Books (North America), Mondial (Sweden) and Alpha Decay (Spain).