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Big Data, Scapegoat or Hero – Ethical Insights from René Girard

Howard Harris (University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia)

Who's Watching? Surveillance, Big Data and Applied Ethics in the Digital Age

ISBN: 978-1-80382-468-0, eISBN: 978-1-80382-467-3

Publication date: 12 July 2022


Big Data draws both praise and criticism, seen as both villain and hero. The release of megabytes of data by Wikileaks is accorded praise as information transparency by some, whilst others find the massive collection of information by Amazon or Google, often freely given, immoral and to be feared. The paper examines three cases embracing the velocity, volume and variety aspects of Big Data – digital platforms, driverless cars and the Banking Royal Commission – and uses René Girard’s theories of mimesis and scapegoating to show that the identification of a scapegoat, or villain, is a common feature in them and that concerns over Big Data are linked to fear of ‘the other’, thus helping to show how Big Data can be both loved and hated and how both practitioners and theorists might comprehend public reaction to big data and its ethical dimensions.




This paper has been revised in the light of reviewer comments, and I thank the reviewers and editor for their helpful comments. The revision comes some nine months after work on the paper began. That has allowed for some additional material to be included. I have written elsewhere about the explanatory power of Girard with regard to public inquiries. This paper seeks to apply Girard’s theories to big data. It benefits from the preparation of those earlier papers and presentations, for ABEN (1999), BERL at UniSA (2020), SBE (2020), APPE (2021), for the aborted 1999 Australian Girard Seminar and for a forthcoming Philosophy of Management conference. My work on Girard has had the benefit of discussion in the Girard Reading Group which although based in Melbourne now meets by Zoom.


Harris, H. (2022), "Big Data, Scapegoat or Hero – Ethical Insights from René Girard", Walsh, A. and Boucher, S. (Ed.) Who's Watching? Surveillance, Big Data and Applied Ethics in the Digital Age (Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, Vol. 26), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 23-38.



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