Sep 30 2014

NASCIO 2014: The Downside to the Big Data Wild West

Sociobiologist Rebecca Costa cautions that complexity causes paralysis and governments must adapt to survive.

If it seems like things today have become significantly more complicated, you’re not alone. That’s the message of sociobiologist Rebecca Costa, who says the complexity of data, foundational systems and processes exceed the cognitive capabilities people have thus far evolved.

Costa, author of “The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse,” says we’ve lost our ability to solve problems. She attributes that to the vast volume of data being created.

Speaking at the National Association of Chief Information Officers annual conference in Nashville on Monday, Costa said, “We’re drowning in data and options, and it’s impossible without technology to process the information.”

Costa says gridlock occurs because complexity races ahead of our brain’s ability to understand it. “We become unable to fix our problems and begin passing them from one generation to another,” she said.

Complexity makes facts and knowledge difficult to acquire, and that leads to decisions and policies being shaped by unproven beliefs rather than knowledge and facts. For example, the Mayans had a tenuous relationship with rainfall. They built reservoirs, practiced crop rotation and water conservation, and dug underground cisterns. But they also practiced fetishism and as the drought increased, they went from sacrificing slaves, then virgins, then finally were murdering newborns.

“We are behaving like the Mayans,” warned Costa. “They made a turn toward irrational public policy and collapse ensued.” Because people have the fight or flight response, there’s no physiological reaction to long-term danger, planning suffers.

Costa said the solution is to adapt by relying on technology. She pointed to great advances in Big Data, analytics, cloud computing and social media and spoke about the potential of facial recognition, drones and nanobots for solving problems.

“We live in the golden age of neuroscience,” Costa said. “If you can predict that an event that will occur, you’re really onto something.

You can keep up with the latest from this year's conference by visiting our NASCIO 2014 content hub.

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