Social Order in the Age of Big Data: Exploring the Knowledge Problem and the Freedom Problem

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This talk will explore how to use social theory to understand problems of social order and its relationship to an era of Big Data. I take as a starting-point of the talk the neglected late work of theorist Norbert Elias and the concept of figurations, which I draw upon in my recent book (The Mediated Construction of Reality, with Andrew Hepp, Polity 2016), as a way of thinking better about the social world's real complexity. I will sketch the historical background that shapes what we know about the role of communications in the growth of industrial capitalism in the 19th century to argue that we are in a parallel phase of major transformation today. This raises two problems on which the talk will reflect: first, what are the distinctive features of the social knowledge that is today being generated through big data processes, compared with the 19th century's rise of statistics as the primary generator of social knowledge; second, what are the implications for the enduring value of freedom of the data collection processes on which Big Data is founded?



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