Big data through the lens of the history of psychology–a personal reflection

By Apr.27, 2014

Dr Regina Tuma, from the Doctoral Faculty in Media Psychology at Fielding Graduate University reflects on big data applying a psychological lens. 
Enjoy this really interesting piece!

Big data looks and feels good. But it is misplaced utopianism. When in doubt, I go back to history of psychology and I research moments where we have had a turn towards fundamentalist belief in technology and/or science; there have been plenty in our discipline’s history. As a graduate student, I remember asking my history professor exactly the very same question. I asked him whether we would get definitive answers as we got better technology. His answer: “You will find that the technology may change, but the questions will remain the same.” Psychology (and our culture), for better or worse (and I emphasize for worse) is going through a fundamentalist period where there is quest for reductionist models (no mind, just brain), extreme faith in technology and science (much the same as during Progressivist era where thought science could solve political and social issues). What we are seeing with big data is not all that different from when psychologists discovered computer and Turing machine and artificial intelligence. History of psychology teaches us to be cautious of false promises. Beware the false promise of the fundamentalist belief in the messy correlation as we misuse it as a causal tool. 

Turning back to media psychology, media are tools of expression. A pencil is a tool of expression and communication. So are social media, movies, telephone conversations, etc. What if the best we can say about big data is that it is no different from a painting that an artist creates, and therefore we are all artists now? Our creations are artifacts of culture, to be admired, to be reflected upon in the way that works of art draw us into moments of self and cultural reflection—these in themselves being forms of knowledge. Behaviorism falls because it tries to explain the totality of human experience though cause and effect—at least Watson did. What is really at stake here is not different from Wundt and his understanding that we can explain through science but a small part of human consciousness. We need more humility as psychologists and media psychologists. At least Wundt understood the limitations of science, what gets lost and what goes unexplained. We need to reclaim our Wundtian moment.
Dr Regina Tuma, PhD
Author’s note–I do not capitalize big data–as way to demystify. The omission was on purpose.

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