Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Some cracks in the technocrat cult

Chrystia Freeland
May 23, 2013 21:05 UTC

We are living in the age of the technocrats. In business, Big Data, and the Big Brains who can parse it, rule. In government, the technocrats are on top, too. From Washington to Frankfurt to Rome, technocrats have stepped in where politicians feared to tread, rescuing economies, or at least propping them up, in the process.

Technocrats are in vogue within the intelligentsia, too. It is well nigh impossible to pick up a book about any social or political issue nowadays (including, I hasten to admit, my own) without coming across some data-heavy social science research. And the familiar pleas for common sense and a centrist approach, free from the taint of ideology, usually boil down to a call to put the technocrats in charge.

Technocrats have a lot to recommend them. We do, after all, live in the age of Big Data, and ignoring it or not being able to use it is a sure path to either bankruptcy or humiliation – witness the data jock extraordinaire Nate Silver and his legendary smackdowns of columnists who rely on anecdote and intuition.

But, particularly in the wake of 2008, a global crisis that technocrats both helped cause and failed to predict, there are also sound reasons not to rely mechanically on technocratic solutions. That’s why it is worth reading a new paper by Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James Robinson of Harvard University.

In their seminal 2012 book, “Why Nations Fail,” Acemoglu and Robinson offered a powerful new framework for understanding why some societies thrive and others decline – those based on inclusive growth succeed, while those where growth is extractive wither.

Big data’s big impact

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 12, 2012 23:09 UTC

The Internet is, of course, old hat. We are all getting used to social media, too — your grandmother probably has a Facebook account, and every CEO worth his salt, along with all the world’s would-be revolutionaries, is on Twitter. Mobile, once the new thing, is now taken for granted as part of the world’s hardware. In 2010, more than 4 billion people, or 60 percent of the world’s population, were using mobile phones. Twelve percent of them were smartphones, whose presence is increasing more than 20 percent a year.

But don’t get complacent. A new wave of the technology revolution is cresting and, like its predecessors, will again change the way we work and live. This latest transformation is being called “big data” — a term for the vast amount of digital data we now create and have an increasing ability to store and manipulate.

If wonks were fashionistas, big data would be this season’s hot new color. When I interviewed him before a university audience a few weeks ago, Lawrence H. Summers, the Harvard professor and former Treasury secretary, named big data as one of the three ideas he was most excited about (the others were biology and the rise of the emerging markets). The McKinsey Global Institute, the management consultancy’s research arm and the closest the corporate world comes to having an ivory tower, published a 143-page report last year on big data, trumpeting it as “the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity.”

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