Is “Big Data” a Manifestation of the Collective Unconscious?

I’ve just had a revelation which as a musician who has observed the changes that have developed in the music industry over the years seems to explain something about what is happening in our wider society. It used to be that you discovered music mostly through word-of-mouth. Friends would recommend to you something which they liked which perhaps they thought you would like too. In order to strengthen the bond of friendship you might share a tape or CD or whatever and that would be accepted and tested by listening and then returned/reciprocated. Or you might go to a live gig, alone or with friends, but there was a connection with the band or performer which was tangible, conscious and to a certain extent rational and explainable. Even when you think about broadcasting, the DJ on the radio is still a person, albeit a professional, who is involved with us by conveying something of their passion about music. If they weren’t passionate about it why would they be in the job after all?

Now musical discovery can come in a wholly different way because technology has changed dramatically and streaming platforms like Apple Music or Spotify have such vast catalogues, which by extension we also have access to, and it is a question of “Where does one start”? In order to help listeners, and perhaps because initially it was a relatively simple matter for programmers to implement, the streaming services provided a recommended selection of music which was predicated on a minimal amount of personal input. I remember being quite fascinated (and perhaps obsessed) by the function provided by Last FM that would essentially give you a personalised radio channel based on your collection of music which I spent quite a long time assiduously building up by entering my own assorted records and CD’s. Now that streaming platforms are so mainstream people build up their collections online not based on any physical purchases whatsoever. The data generated by this behaviour substitutes for the outdated physical collection of music recordings and also allows streaming providers to continue in their practice of recommended music or personalised track selection. No longer is the music streaming business just a glorified jukebox but it has evolved into an intelligent provider of music. The underlying intelligence to its selections however is not based on direct or conscious human intervention even though the system itself was consciously created by human intelligence. The algorithms which are essentially programmes that take into account numerous variables and produce an output are now the mediators. The variables are wholly dependent on the mass of data gathered and analysed into discrete categories in a highly logical and systematic way. This information is outwith our conscious knowledge because naturally it is now incredibly vast in its scope.

When I was younger I was given a book which became quite a big influence on me. The person who gave me it was a friend of my parents and she was a minister who was equally at home in the Christian and Buddhist traditions. The book was C. G. Jung’s autobiography “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” and it sparked off a lifelong interest in psychology. The reason why I’m bringing this up is because the insight that occurred to me today is how similar the concept which Jung proposed of a Collective Unconscious is to the data which we now call “Big Data”. The people who delve into the realm of Big Data as far as it relates to sociological phenomenon could be gleaning as much as the depth psychologist who investigates the workings of the Collective Unconscious. And there are features of both which relate very much to human experience and behaviour which is that the knowledge of them can be used for both good and not-so-good purposes. The algorithms for streaming music may be seen as a relatively benign use of Big Data, but we have all seen the darker side of it when it is abused for political purposes by the likes of Cambridge Analytica. The key thing is that Big Data gives us an insight into the quite powerful and deep currents at work within the human psyche, just as the concept of the Collective Unconscious might help a psychotherapist to unravel the dynamics within the mind of a patient. Both are really a form of modelling, an effective map of a region which is unknown territory for many and they allow for practical action to take place whilst exploring that territory which is an abstract and intangible world but one of great energy and power if tapped. And for some people power can be directly translated into wealth and so the desire to master this knowledge is paramount.

I started off by using the example of the changes in the music industry. I could have used pretty much any industry in our society as an example but this is one I have some knowledge of. The point I’m making is that the systems in our society are all rapidly changing and the drivers are technological and also deeply psychological. Perhaps the way we will best come to understand and even cope with these changes is if we utilise the tools available to us which have been developed by great minds like C. G. Jung and many others. And we must also retain our sense of humanity which once was so fundamental to our interactions even though they have been modified so much recently.

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