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From academia to (off)-Broadway

16 August 2016

The article at a glance

David Stillwell is a big data academic at Cambridge Judge Business School. So why does he feature in a hit play at …

David Stillwell is a big data academic at Cambridge Judge Business School. So why does he feature in a hit play at New York’s Public Theater, starring Daniel Radcliffe?

The production: Privacy starring Daniel Radcliff

Dr David Stillwell is an academic through and through. Bespectacled, earnest, soft-spoken, and – he likes to joke – holder of perhaps the longest job title in the history of academia: “University Lecturer in Big Data Analytics and Quantitative Social Science” at Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.

Dr David Stillwell
Dr David Stillwell

So how in the world did “David Stillwell” end up under the bright lights of a New York stage, in a hit off-Broadway play starring former “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe?

“David Stillwell” is a character in the dramatic play “Privacy”, which just concluded an enthusiastically received run at New York’s Public Theater. The Stillwell character – played by another actor – describes his groundbreaking “big data” research (co-authored by the real Dr Stillwell) on how a person’s Facebook “likes” can accurately predict his or her personality.

That much-discussed study – entitled “Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behaviour” – was published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr Stillwell is Deputy Director of the Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School, part of the School’s Executive Education division, which conducts cutting-edge research on psychological assessment in the online arena.

The Public Theater production of “Privacy” ran from 2 July to 14 August, and was one of the hottest tickets in this year’s New York theatre season. The play was “inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowden,” the American (now living in Russia) whose leak of classified material led to deep discussion about privacy in the digital age.

The play originally opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2014. Most of the characters in the original production (such as some British politicians) were swapped out for American characters for the rewritten Public Theater production.

But, said playwright James Graham: “David was one of the very few original ‘characters’ to remain, and the moments in the play where he features, discussing the results of his research and engaging the audience in a live interaction alongside Daniel Radcliffe, remains one of the most popular moments in the show.”

In this part of the play, the David Stillwell character leads a live interaction: audience members share some of their personal details on their mobile phones – and the results are discussed live on stage.

Suffice it to say that – despite the title of the play – we all have very little “Privacy” given the volume and specificity of the data we leave in our digital trails.

“As an academic, I never expected that I’d get to see myself played on stage. But public discussion of these serious issues of privacy is healthy,” says Dr Stillwell. “We are just coming to grips with how much information is out there about each and every one of us, and this theatre production makes people really think about an important issue while still enjoying an engaging dramatic play.”

“Privacy” is described on the Public Theater website: “Who are you? Are you the websites you visit, the music you download, the photos you post? Do you measure your value by your followers and your likes? Who’s listening to you? And whom are you watching back…?”

For theatre-goers, the play is a unique experience. Usually, audience members are given a stern advance warning to turn off their mobile phones to avoid disrupting the production. But in “Privacy”, patrons are told: “Charge your phone and leave it on for this fascinating dive online and into a new reality where we’re all connected… for better or worse.”