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Timandra Harkness - Four Way Interview

Timandra Harkness is a writer, comedian and broadcaster, who has been performing on scientific, mathematical and statistical topics since the latter days of the 20th Century. She is a regular on BBC Radio, resident reporter on social psychology series The Human Zoo as well as writing and presenting documentaries including BBC Radio 4’s Data, Data Everywhere and FutureProofing series.

In 2010 she co-wrote and performed Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death, with stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, which was a sell-out hit at the Edinburgh Fringe before touring the rest of the UK and Australia. Science comedy since then includes solo show Brainsex, cabarets and gameshows. She is currently writing a new comedy show about Big Data.

Why big data? 

I got interested a few years ago in statistics, partly because I enjoy the maths (I know! It's a niche hobby, but I like it), partly because it's a great way to understand new things about the world we live in, and partly because I found it odd that everyone was suddenly into infographics and percentages. I had a hunch that something else was going on, if statistics had suddenly got so sexy. I mean, I like stats as much as the next person,* but they'd suddenly acquired this almost mystical status. Which made me uneasy.

While I was debating, and writing about, and doing comedy shows about statistics, along came Big Data. It was like the sequel, only now with very expensive special effects and a bigger marketing budget. Like stats wearing a robotic exoskelton. So again, it was partly the appeal of the very clever mathematical ideas, and partly a hunch that it would tell me something wider about what's going on in society.

*Probably more than the next person, in fact, as I'm doing a Mathematics & Statistics degree with the Open University in my spare time. 

Why this book?

I've been working on the ideas in this book for about five years. I'm very lucky, because I spend most of my time either writing or debating or making radio about ideas. So I've spoken at, or chaired, dozens of events about big data, made a BBC Radio 4 programme about it, and generally explored not only what people are doing with big data, but why it's such a hot topic. 
People are doing some remarkable things with big data, things which simply weren't possible before. Scientific research is being transformed, businesses run more efficiently, new connections are found by linking sets of data that are collected by default, like weather records and medical histories. 

There are also developments that I find more worrying. It's so easy to collect data on each one of us, and then aggregate it without our knowledge or consent. I do worry about privacy, but also about the tendency to see us all as datapoints instead of people.

But I'm not somebody who thinks technology is evil and will destroy all we hold dear. If anything, the urge to trust big data more than we trust human judgment tells us more about how we see people than about the technology itself. I think it has huge potential, if we have the nerve to use it. In some ways big data needs to think bigger.

What’s next?

I'm writing a new comedy show based on big data. It's a topic that most people connect with on some level, even if it's just because they have a smartphone and hadn't really thought about how much information their own phone is collecting about them. So it should be very interactive. 
I also do a lot of live events, so I'm looking forward to getting the ideas in the book back out into public spaces to debate them. I expect some people will read the book and come along to tell me I'm wrong. If they make a good enough case, maybe I'll agree with them! Then I'll have to do a rewrite before the paperback comes out. 

That's what's so important about discussing ideas: if we don't keep testing what we think, how can we tell if our ideas are right?

What’s exciting you at the moment?

I co-present a BBC Radio 4 series called Futureproofing, so I get to talk to people at the forefront of new technologies and explore what they might mean for society. I'm always most interested in those questions: not just 'how does it work?' but also 'what can it tell us about the bigger questions?'

One of the recurring themes is asking: what makes humans unique? Is there anything about us that can't be modelled in machines? I think there is, but putting my finger on what, exactly, is a question that goes right through science and beyond.

And that takes me back to the other radio series I work on, Human Zoo, about social psychology. How do we think? Can studying how we think help us to think... better? What would better mean, in this context?

Small questions like that!

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