When a new professor gives an inaugural lecture it is an occasion to reflect on the developing intellectual field they operate in, and a chance for the new hire to set out their current and future research plans and contribute to pressing public debates. Last week we previewed new LSE professor Nick Couldry’s inaugural speech. Now we can offer access to the full text and podcast. Part of Professor Couldry’s fascinating and wide ranging talk focused on a critique of what he called the myth of Big Data: the notion that Big Data is the key to understanding our social world.
On one hand we create more data than ever before – much of it incidental- and on the other it is becoming easier to store, manipulate and analyse this data. The use of Big Data raises many questions for communications policy makers regarding privacy, transparency and jurisdiction; but Big Data is also being used to inform public policy making across the board. What Couldry challenged was the reliance on Big Data for all the answers. And by linking trends in big data to an understanding of how the new economics of advertising feeds on emerging beliefs that social media are the key to the ‘myth of us’, Couldry offers some tantalising new indicators of where critical media studies is headed.
Whilst Couldry does not reject the promise of these developments for the social sciences, he offers a welcome note of caution: data does not replace interpretation and theory, and we should not permit data to replace ‘hermeneutic’ reflection on meaning and normative positioning. Working inductively: and simply expecting theory to emerge from patterns in the data may be promising if we are looking for unexpected environmental factors that contribute to cancer, but in the social sciences we are also dealing with complex normative questions of the ‘ought’.
Regulators and policymakers should take note: the continuing obsession with evidence- based policy masks the fact that some kind of normative position is indispensable. Big data carries its own temptations in the realm of media and communications policy as it appears to offer technocratic solutions given the political sensitivity of policy development. On the Media Policy Project we are all about bringing better evidence into the policymaking process. But we also want to foster a public debate on the wider objectives and values that inform these key decisions about how our media system should be funded, managed and held to account.
The article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.