The Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential primary was supposed to be the coronation of Hillary Clinton. She was the most well-known candidate, had the most support from the party establishment, and had, by far, the most financial resources.
The coronation went off script. Barack Obama, a black man with an unhelpful name, won the Democratic nomination and, then, the presidential election against Republican John McCain because the Obama Campaign had a lot more going for it than Obama’s eloquence and charisma: Big Data.
The Obama campaign put every potential voter into its database, along with hundreds of tidbits of personal information: age, gender, marital status, race, religion, address, occupation, income, car registrations, home value, donation history, magazine subscriptions, leisure activities, Facebook friends, and anything else they could find that seemed relevant.
Layered on top were weekly telephone surveys of thousands of Potential Voters that attempted to gauge each person’s likelihood of voting—and voting for Obama. These voter likelihoods were correlated statistically with personal characteristics and extrapolated to other potential voters so that the campaign’s computer software could predict how likely each person in its database was to vote and the probability that the vote would be for Obama.
This>wonks who put all their faith in a computer program and ignored the millions of working-class voters who had either lost their jobs or feared they might lose their jobs. In one phone call with Hillary, Bill reportedly got so angry that he threw his phone out the window of his Arkansas penthouse.
Big Data is not a panacea—particularly when Big Data is hidden inside a computer and humans who know a lot about the real world do not know what the computer is doing with all that data.
Computers can do some things really, really well. We are empowered and enriched by them every single day of our lives. However, Hillary Clinton is not the only one who has been overawed by Big Data, and she will surely not be the last.
Featured image credit: American flag by DWilliams. CC0 via Pixabay.
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