Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Big Data: How the Information Revolution is Transforming our Lives, by Brian Clegg (author), Alex Moorcock (narrator)

Dreamscape Media, ISBN 9781666532036, August 2021

We live in a world of big data, with government, corporations, social media, and all kinds of organizations in possession of vast amounts of quite personal data about us--most of which we've handed over ourselves.

That's just one piece big data, though. The accumulation of enormous amounts of data, and the use of modern, advanced computers to process it, has affected every area of our lives and our world. Not much over two centuries ago, medicine was still largely a matter of trial and error, and medical theories we know to be completely wrong.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw considerable advances, but there were still serious limitations on the ability to test new drugs and new treatments on enough people, and a sufficiently diverse and balanced sample, to get truly reliable results on effectiveness, and on who they'd be effective on. Because no, humans aren't all alike, and don't all react the same way to the same treatments.

But with the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we now do have the means to gather and analyze almost unlimited data, and to keep gathering that data, making far better medical decisions possible.

On the individual level, getting the best personal results from that means handing over even more personal data. And that data is no longer sitting on paper, in locked filing cabinets in our doctors' offices. It's in computers, which generally have to be networked to get the best results out of them. I can log into one patient portal from my home computer, and access test results, upcoming appointments, and information about my prescriptions from several different specialists and the hospital I'm usually taken to when necessary. My own primary care physician isn't part of this patient portal, because he's 80 and has an attitude of deep suspicion toward the reliability of computer security that, in theory, I wholly endorse. And yet. I like having access to all this information. Oh, and a lot of the results from my primary care physician are there anyway, because my specialists have requested them in order to properly coordinate care.

I'm sure they've taken lots of care to keep all this medical data, for me and all their other patients, as secure as possible. I also believe no system is unhackable. It's a risk. It's one that on balance, I'm comfortable taking, for the benefits. But that's me. I don't have any medical conditions I consider embarrassing--and I'm autistic. I love data, and what experts can make it do. Some people have conditions they'd have a problem with random people knowing. Sometimes because certain conditions can change how other people may respond to you, and sometimes because they don't have my relatively detached attitude towards personal medical data. Both those feelings are valid, but, as I indicated above, even finding a PCP like mine who is much more conservative about sharing and accessibility of electronic data doesn't mean your information isn't going to wind up in them. Especially if you have conditions that require specialists.

There are less personally fraught uses of big data, though. CERN uses big data and the computers that process it to find, for instance, the Higgs Boson. Our space telescopes, including Hubble, Kepler, and now the James Webb, have gathered huge amounts of data, and computers have played a critical role in analyzing that data, making new discoveries about the workings of our universe possible.

I haven't even touched on the financial and economic uses of big data, and the enormous impact of that on our lives, for both good and ill. Brian Clegg does. This isn't a long book, but it's packed with information and understanding of how big data affects our lives.


I bought this audiobook.

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