Who Benefits From Big Data? (Part 1)


By Daniel Sarewitz,

This is the first in a series on big data and its impact on society from CSPO co-director Daniel Sarewitz. Check back in 2013 for his next post. 

Advances in real-time data acquisition, processing, and display technologies means that it is possible to design a toll-road that can continually change prices to control how many cars are on the road and how fast they are going.  These “hot lanes” have just been opened along a part of the Washington, DC Beltway, the 10-lane, traffic-infested artery that to normal humans is a metaphorical boundary between the real, outside-the-Beltway world and the weird, political one on the inside.  (For those of us who live around Washington and must drive on it, however, the Beltway is very concrete indeed, a daily flirtation with delay and frustration, homicidal instincts, and death itself.)

At a cost of two billion dollars, a private sector partnership (which gets to keep the tolls) has built a 14-mile-long, 4-laned section of highway, parallel to the main lanes of the toll-free Beltway, and has guaranteed to the state of Virginia that it will always keep traffic moving at no less that 45 mph along its length.  They do this by continuously monitoring the number of cars (which must be equipped with EZ-Pass transponders) and their speed, and by raising toll prices as necessary to keep the number of cars on the road at a level that will allow the speed to stay at or above the guaranteed minimum.  The dynamic toll prices are displayed on huge signs near the entrances to the smart-highway lanes, so drivers get to decide at the last minute whether they want to spend the money to go faster or not.  As the traffic on the toll-free Beltway lanes gets worse, some drivers will be willing to spend more to go faster.  The worse the traffic is, the more they’ll have to spend.  (In the early days of this new technology, numerous accidents were caused by drivers trying to decide how much they were willing to pay, but no doubt this initial problem will sort itself out as people get used to driving-while-economically-rational.)

Of course economic rationality benefits some more than others.  As long ago as 1973, the philosopher Ivan Illich recognized that speed was an issue at the intersection of technology and justice. In his extended essay “Energy and Equity,” Illich observed presciently, if somewhat obscurely, that the quest for speed in transportation was an unrecognized domain in which technological advance itself led to increasing inequity of distribution of social and economic opportunity:

“Unchecked speed is expensive, and progressively fewer can afford it. Each increment in the velocity of a vehicle results in an increase in the cost of propulsion and track construction and—most dramatically—in the space the vehicle devours while it is on the move. Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a world-wide class structure of speed capitalists is created.”

The Beltway smart-lanes perfectly illustrate Illich’s proposition in a technological application that he might never have imagined.  Market rationality imposed on roadways that all people depend on for their livelihoods and social lives means that poor people will be increasingly required to travel more slowly than those with more money.  Relative to the toll-paying classes, they will have less time to sleep, or for their families, or for their work.  This is a problem that acts synergistically with other disadvantages, such as the realities that poor people often have long commutes, because they cannot afford to live in areas of high real-estate prices where many jobs are located, and that they often must drive old, less efficient automobiles, and so have to pay more for fuel.

The technology for the Beltway smart lanes is an impressive early example of how rapidly growing data collection and management capabilities can be applied in real-time to manage complex, if narrow, social problems—and, if we’re not attentive (which we seem not to be)—to  reinforce, in another small way, the embedded inequities that are growing more serious and apparently intractable in American society.