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The New Nature vs. Nurture: Big Data & Identity

A baby born in the US today will live an algorithmed life. Her education, healthcare, career, who she dates, the ads she sees, what she reads, eats, buys, will be shaped by a feedback loop of data collected, processed, fed back to her, collected, processed, fed back to her.

We call this the new nature and the new nurture.

In the new nature, we know more about ourselves through data sources that we will have at our disposal. Information streams of personal and genetic data are increasingly available, but this raises psychological and emotional implications on self-awareness.

In the new nurture, retailers, corporations and government bodies use data mining to parse, segment, and sell to human beings. This marks a new moment for humanity: the algorithmed life.

The new nature and nurture create opportunity and peril. The increasing availability of data changes how we are able to know and define ourselves—at the risk of being defined by algorithms that we can’t control.

Additional Supporting Materials


  1. What are the psychological and emotional implications of this new kind of self-awareness? What happens to our ideas about ourselves when we can visualize information in new ways -- or when information is presented about us in new ways?
  2. How does the deep data that becomes evident in this new nature vs. nurture change ideas of diversity, of where we come from, of what we value?
  3. How does knowing our own and our loved ones' disease, economic or other risks influence our behavior and create our identity? And what does this say about the nature of risk in general?
  4. What narratives might we want to prevent being told about us?
  5. How much of this data will this baby leading an algorithmic life know about? What will she have power over? What will be decided for her? Beyond that, how will her personal identity be shaped by this constant stream of algorithmically derived input?



Molly Steenson, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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