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Data, the Politics of the Information Society, and You!
FYS 029, CRN 7906
Debra DeLaet, Daniel Alexander
TR 12:30-1:45pm

This first year seminar will examine and analyze the expanding role of data in our social, political, and economic lives. Economic efficiencies, technological developments such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, and an ascendant analytical worldview now allow for the storage and processing of massive amounts of information and data. “Big data”, a term that refers to extremely large data sets that companies, governments, non-profit organizations, and other actors use to identify patterns and trends to achieve their objectives, represents the extraordinary growth in the use of digitized information to structure and shape our daily lives in critical ways. Companies collect big data so you get better ad clicks and so they can improve their bottom lines. Governmental institutions use big data as a surveillance tool. Even social media—our tweets, family photos, news stories, personal opinions, daily routines and habits—has become a new source for big data and other data-driven approaches to collective decision-making and problem-solving. In turn, a data-driven approach to our everyday lives—whereby we track fitness and nutrition, travel and recreation, and our social plans via apps—has become increasingly prevalent, not always for the good.

But data can have many positive uses. Foremost, it enables us to strive for decisions that are driven by analytical evidence rather than anecdotal or impressionistic thinking. Evidence-based decision-making should lead to more accurate analyses by individuals, organizations, and governments. At the same time, overreliance on data to structure collective decision-making has a downside. It involves information on such a vast scale that the evidence that informs decision-making may be very far removed from the individuals and communities affected by key decisions—moreover, it may ignore important evidence gathered by other means. Critics argue that a data-driven approach to our social, political, and economic lives risks diminishing our humanity as digitized interactions displace genuine interpersonal relationships and as individual privacy is threatened by an ever-expanding sphere of consumable ‘public’ data. This FYS will provide students with opportunities to investigate both the positive uses and downside risks of a digitized analytical approach to collective decision-making and problem-solving as they consider its effects in their daily lives as individuals, consumers, and citizens.

There are no quantitative pre-requisites for this course. The course will be informed by insights from multiple disciplines, and students whose primary interests are in mathematics, the natural sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, or the arts will be equally at home in this class.  For those who need it, the course will provide a gentle introduction to quantitative analytical technique, including assignments and activities designed to help students develop skills in reading quantitative analysis.

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