Q: You did your PhD in social anthropology 30 years ago, before becoming a journalist. Why write this book now?
A: I use this phrase a lot – “a fish can’t see water” – and I couldn’t see how the anthropology world I’d been in had shaped my thinking. The 2008 financial crisis really showed me the value of anthropology, and the pandemic has done that again. In lockdown I finally had the chance to sit down and write it. I didn’t enjoy writing about myself though – I found it excruciating!
Q: Big claims are made for the role of “big data” but your Anthro-Vision suggests that data alone is not enough. Why is that?
A: There are two issues here. Big data operates by collecting enormous amounts of information about what individuals have done in the recent past or even in real time. And that’s incredibly useful if you think that the recent past is a good way to extrapolate to the future. It often is, but sometimes it’s not. Second, big data can capture the correlations, but not always the causations. A “like” on Facebook may not be a comment on the image, but about the person who posted it – that’s the sort of thing that big data can’t necessarily pick up.
Big data can be incredibly useful, but it’s only useful if you recognise its limitations, and constantly perform checks and balances to see whether it’s actually telling you what you think it’s telling you.