Digital Panopticon

Big data is nowadays not only commercially exploited by Facebook and Amazon, but also collected and analyzed with the aim to support engineers in maintenance decisions. In situation where assets are constantly monitored, screened, and analyzed for abnormal patterns or suspicious behavior, the world of maintenance will change into a digital Panopticon. The basic setup of Jeremy’s Bentham’s panopticon is a central tower surrounded by cells. In the central tower is the watchman.

Although the individual freedom to arrange a database by the user seems large, most databases have a homogeneous structure with predefined menu’s and categories. Database’s ontology reduces, through atomization, complex asset (with corresponding functions) into their basic data elements. This atomization therefore leads to de-contextualization and loss of the known narrative properties and causality is replaced by random correlations.

Big Data works on the principle of: more, messy, good enough (Mayer-Schonberg and Cukier 2013). Other than in traditional data analysis based on a representative sample, all available data is used. The data is messy because the different sources (e.g. sensors) are not structured in the same way. That is then compensated by the enormous available amount of data. Data mining itself is primarily focused on finding interesting patterns (i.e. wear, load, vibration). It is not about finding causal relationships, but about correlations (knowing what, not why). In the narrative world of engineers, the ‘why’ is important. In their world is all about action, rationality and deliberate, considered motives. Big data is aimed at predicting future divergent behavior of an item and suggesting corrective maintenance actions accordingly. In a predominantly data-oriented environment, craftsmanship has been replaced by predictive algorithms and data starts to function as a prison (Schonberg and Cukier 2013). The prisoner as a metaphor (free to Foucault’s), describes the prisoner in a panopticon as being at the receiving end of asymmetrical surveillance van statistical probability.

Kenneth Cukier, ‘Big Data: A Revolution That will Transform how we live, work, and think’

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