Will Big Data Be Used to Create Ad Zombies or Digital Assistants?

12/16/2015 05:14 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2016

I usually don't expect deep insights from South Park. The producers of this animated comedy invariably deliver quirky, spot-on observations of modern culture. The episodes are usually funny, occasionally sophomoric and populated with throwaway lines about human behavior. However, season 19 of South Park offered some penetrating interpretations of Internet privacy that resonated with me. The last three episodes of the season delightfully skewered online advertising and and the "ad zombies" big business wants us all to become.

Between bouts of outright laughter and knowing chuckles, it wasn't hard to see the truth in the dystopian view delivered by Trey Parker, writer and director of these episodes. Parker shrewdly avoided giving his characters the "tech-speak" dialogue typically associated with discussions of big data algorithms that drive online advertising. Instead, he very effectively presented a vision of an online world dominated by a blizzard of popup ads and sponsored content masquerading as news. In that distorted reality, the residents of South Park were unable to separate reality (or as "real" as the online world can be, cartoon or otherwise) and the fictional world of advertising. Indeed, at the close of the season a character on the show, Leslie, has been completely transformed by online advertisers into the ultimate consumer--a walking, talking, human-appearing ad zombie.

Beneath this fictional characterization of the application of big data technology is a large dose of nonfiction. Pedro Domingos, author and professor of computer science at the University of Washington in Seattle, offers a differing viewpoint. In his world the vast amounts of data being collected by big business can be harnessed to benefit consumers. Dr. Domingos' recent article in the Wall Street Journal paints a utopian scenario where consumers are able to wrest control of the personal information stolen by big business and use it to create "digital models". These models would be acting as virtual personal assistants negotiating with merchants, interviewing with prospective employers and even speed dating on behalf of lovelorn consumers.

The good professor's digital domain is even more bizarre than the cartoon world painted in South Park. It's quite sad that Dr. Domingos finds the "fog of life" to be "unendurable" without his digital armor. Not that life is always easy but most people actually enjoy their interactions with other members of their communities without the mediation of their digital avatars. While the technical feasibility of the world Domingos envisions is undeniable, we really need to ask if creating millions of digital models to remove us even further from face-to-face interaction is the right thing to do.

Trey Parker's South Park takes us to George Orwell's world of 1984. In his view, Big Brother government is replaced by Big Business. Control remains the objective and the citizens of South Park are driven by their corporate overlords to become consumer zombies. Pedro Domingos' vision seems to be an even more futuristic version of George Jetson, the 1960's cartoon show. Naively optimistic about the promises of technology, Domingos seems to ignore the perils of aggregating vast amounts of personal data in huge centralized repositories of purportedly trusted third-parties.

In our view, neither extreme outcome is necessary. To avoid joining our friends in South Park as ad zombies, consumers should demand transparency from corporations harvesting their personal information. Technology solutions can be developed that will return control of this information to consumers. Fortunately, this can be accomplished without being sucked into the nightmarish digital future offered by Dr. Domingos.

Gary Ebersole is co-founder of the Open IoT Foundation. He blogs at Data Vampires Chronicle and Medium.