When free will, causality and privacy are all at stake

Review of Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier’s Big Data

We live in a world where flu outbreaks are predicted faster and more accurately by analysing Google search results rather than by doctors or clinicians, where traffic jams are better judged by crunching data from cellphone signals rather than from direct reports from people on the ground, and where your shopping habits might reveal that you’re pregnant before anyone else in your family knows.

This is the power of big data. It is defined not by the sheer volume of information, but by what that large volume enables us to do that similar smaller volume of data wouldn’t. For example, Google’s flu trends will hardly work if the amount of queries made per second were not in the thousands. Another aspect of big data is that using it means shedding our obsession for causality and embracing correlations. The important thing is to know what rather than the why.

Take the example of how Google’s page ranking system works. The computer algorithm at the heart of Google search that is analysing data from all across the web is not trying to understand what the websites say or mean, so much as it is trying to correlate what people want when they type something in the search query. More queries followed by more clicks on relevant sites will better the algorithm that ranks pages, helping it to make better predictions which links will work best. Now add to it information like a person’s search history, location, time of the day, etc. and Google is able to give near perfect search results.

The book also rightly argues that despite data’s ubiquitous use today, the revolution has only just begun. A lot of the information in the world still remains locked or wasted. Consider the example of electrocardiography (ECG). When a patient undergoes ECG, hundreds of data points are collected every second but most of it gets thrown away. Instead the capability of easy storage (thus never needing to throw away any data) can be used to make better predictions of the patient’s health in the future. Datafication, which is recording everything possible, can unlock information around us. Things which might seem uninteresting could, in combination with other data, reveal insights that we could not have guessed before

Big data’s use does not paint a uniformly rosy picture. Governments are desperately trying to control more and more data from their citizens’ lives under the guise of security concerns. But, just like private companies do, the data can easily be employed by governments for uses that citizens would not approve of, if they were asked to give consent. The story of Minority Report could come true. In it the government develops a system that is used to predict the future occurrence of crime and make arrests in time to stop it. These sort of uses are still science fiction, but not for long. They risk taking away from humanity its most dear capacity—to act on “free will”.

It is this dual-edged sword of big data that makes Messrs Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger’s book timely and important. Written beautifully and convincingly, it makes for a great read. Where I don’t agree with the book is that big data “will transforming how we live, work and think”. I think it already has.

Busting myths with science

Review of David Bradley’s Deceived Wisdom

A quick, interesting read for those who like reading websites like Quora (and later having arguments in a pub). This is a book about setting the facts right. David Bradley attempts to use science and rational thinking to clear some age-old myths (like “cats are smarter than dogs“) and some modern ones (like “everyone is connected to the other through six connections“).

This “book” should really exist as well-referenced posts on a single website. Some of it exists on sciencebase.com, Bradley’s blog. There are others like snopes.com too. Perhaps what Bradley has done with the book is refine his explanations.

I somewhat agree with what Brian Clegg has to say about it: If you liken popular science books to food, Deceived Wisdom is simply not meaty enough to make it a three course meal. It is, however, a top notch box of chocolates – and who doesn’t like that?


The most remarkable theory of how to achieve happiness

Review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow

Happiness is subjective. And yet, it is hard not to relate to someone else’s happy moments. In this book Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced as mihayli sixcentmihayli) compiles decades worth of research to construct a theory of achieving happiness. Well, actually, he uses the term optimal experience, which he defines as:

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a land-mark in memory for what life should be like.

To achieve this state Csikszentmihalyi says we need to achieve control over our consciousness. That will then allow us to enter a state of “flow”, where there is nothing left to desire. The fact that one is not slim, rich or powerful no longer matters. ” The tide of risking expectations is stilled; unfulfilled needs no longer trouble the mind. The most humdrum experiences become enjoyable.”

That quote appeared quite early on in the book and made me very skeptical. But in the light of numerous example that Csikzsentmihalyi gives, many of which you can relate to, it is hard to not accept the validity of his theory. The author readily admits that the theory is not a new one. Some of the oldest examples come, not surprisingly, from mythology. Many religions have approached the idea of happiness and Csikszentmihalyi’s theory only adds to their conclusions.

For instance, a key message in the Bhagwad Gita is that happiness is the result of the journey towards a goal rather than achieving the goal. Similarly Csikszentmihalyi says that a key element of optimal experience is that it is an end in itself, where an action is performed not for some expected future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

In one of the most extreme examples of flow that Csikszentmihalyi discusses is one where a paraplegic considers the accident of losing both his legs as the most positive thing that happened to him. When his case is analysed it is clear before the accident, he let life happen to him. Whereas after the accident he had to rethink almost everything he had to do in life, and in doing that he followed a process that helped him achieve flow.

So what do we need to produce flow (one that leads to an optimal experience)?

  1. Set an overall goal (and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible)
  2. Find a way of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen
  3. Keep concentrating on what one is doing. Such that one is able to make finer distinctions  in the challenges involved in the activity
  4. Develop skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available
  5. Keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring

The above steps will make it clear why sport is the most popular flow activity. Csikszentmikhalyi argues that the same flow can be achieved in work, if step 2 and step 5 are given more emphasis. (PS: For those who’ve learnt Yoga in its truest form, Csikszentmihalyi considers it to be the most thoroughly planned flow activity.)

This is not a self-help book, and it is not a light read. At times it can also get very repetitive. Having laboured through it though, I am left with a pretty robust theory to approach every activity in life. Although I’ve always used some of the tools like goal-setting, measuring progress and raising stakes, using them all in sync and with added focus on the process is certainly bound to change how I experience everything.