Friday, November 16, 2012

Living With Big Data

We consume a torrent of data as we live, and we produce the same too. However, the more we produce details of each little step we take to live, we obscure the little data more and more, such as feelings and pleasures of human exchanges. The Big Data, the faster, bigger and more complex stream of data, does not so much chronicle our life as much as it changes it. While the technologists and marketers of various descriptions celebrate its arrival, it is time to pause and reflect how it changes us, our lives and institutions, and further, what it means to be human in the age of big data.

One would wonder why big data is any big deal, as data gets bigger with every passing generation. As our networks grow, we know more; our storage technologies get cheaper and better, and we store more. Having lived in the age of floppy drives and 4kb memories, the big leap into megabytes was as significant as moving from cheap gigabytes to plausible petabytes. While the rhetoric is that the torrent of data will submerge us, it won't: The data we produce, collect and store are exactly as much our technologies allow us to. By definition, the big data can't be bigger than what our technologies could handle.

It is not the bigness of data that we should be worried about, but the impact more data has in our lives. In short, this is not a problem of knowing more, but of understanding less, of the obscurity of meaning. The streams of data project patterns of human action, which neatly fits into our collective behaviour. However, the more we focus on collective patterns, indeed produce them, the individual actions, beliefs and idiosyncrasies, everything that we do everyday defying the pattern, which is essentially the act of being a normal person, become more obscure. The massive analysis of Twitter streams tell us stories of how societies behave, but gradually obscure the fact that most of our lives play out offline still. This hardly uncovers the person who, instead of playing with smartphone, actually marched on the street. It creates a pattern of the universe of the observers, but it is the actors who change our lives: It is so easy to get overwhelmed by the act of observation and miss the action altogether.

Never before so many knew so much about matters which were the preserve of so few. The MPs' expense claims today fit into a few compact discs, and therefore, could be passed onto a newspaper without much problem. But knowing more does not make us free: It makes us hand over our responsibilities of deciphering our surroundings to media commentators, as it becomes so hard to make sense.

On the other hand, Men in power want to access the data streams and watch every detail of their citizens' behaviour. They employ armies of data scientists and technologists to uncover any clues about private behaviour. Not all of it is sinister, surely - most of it is designed to keep its citizens loyal consumers of democracy, just like chocolate marketers and trinket sellers of various kinds, dedicated to status quo. The problem that confronts the state is the same as what it does to us individually: Knowing more may obscure the meaning, the trends may hide real action, the data walls may make the state more distant and blind than it has been ever before.

Also, the same qualities that make the data streams available, help it shift power, finally and perhaps irretrievably, from state to private spheres. Weightless as it is, big data today resides with private companies more and more, and the state apparatuses, big and powerful as they are, are increasingly reliant on private repositories of data, held with Google, Twitter, IBM and the like. The state always had the big data - or should we call it bigger data - than was available in private sphere; that balance is now altered in favour of businesses.

This, in the end, is the bigger point of big data - it makes us all consumers now. The underlying vision, that everyone will follow a pattern, and the moral justification, that the state, its institutions and private corporations should know more to serve our material needs, weave an information society to make us consume more, to make us 'happy'. This also puts the act of being human in stark contrast, of defying the trends, of countering stereotypes, of marching on streets and caring for more than what we need to consume. The small conversations suddenly shed its usual boredom and give us relief; the familiar, the usual, the trivial become special, and the act of rediscovering love, respect and little pleasures reappear as authentically human, almost heroic. It represents a chance to regain our humanity, hidden within the vortex of the data stream, away from the prying eyes of our lords and masters, and in contrast with our own consuming selves.

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