Science

Big Data Follows and Buries Us in Equal Measure

Wikileaks’ Julian Assange noted that the East German secret police employed ten percent of the population as informants. The genius of Facebook is that it's an emoticon-besotted surveillance apparatus through which friends rat out friends routinely.

Nobody is listening to your telephone calls… But by sifting through this so-called 'metadata', [the intelligence community] may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism."

-- President Obama, 7 June 2013

One of the blind spots of the digitized form derives, paradoxically, from its ravenous, undiscerning and all-seeing eye. Raw data has no introspective mechanism and affixes no value-coefficient to its own informational content. This evaluative process is left to external entities; sentient, sifting human beings—or their algorithm-proxies—who realize that within oceans of data, trophy catches are few and sea garbage is the norm. Actionable or useful data thus swims against near-insurmountable odds of detection. The 'promotion' from data to information requires human agency and recognition. How can humans accomplish this crucial anointing when information must be dredged from a great dismal data swamp that retraces God's infinitude a little more each day?

The statistics are suitably staggering: According to a recent CSC study, data production will be 44 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2009. A July 2012 BT survey reported, "…a quarter of the decision-makers surveyed predict that data volumes in their companies will rise by more than 60 percent by the end of 2014, with the average of all respondents anticipating a growth of no less than 42 percent." This fantastic upsurge in digital effluence is commonly known as Big Data.

Faced with towering silos of bric-a-brac, poets tend toward metaphysical swoons, certainly one technique for navigating the meta-morass. So consider this fair warning.

That said, I can't help but think of Carl Jung's Answer to Job. God is a stalking horse for today's Big Data in the sense that His infinity induces a moral blindness that only Job, a human agent of particular discernment, can instruct Him through. Seeing everything is not unlike seeing nothing at all. Human insight, by contrast, is a narrowed gaze. Vision demands a focal point, a seeing-eye dog, a discrete POV. Poets are the woofers amidst the tweeters, our first-order data miners. They name things and in so doing give form to chaos.

Database administration is a degraded form of poetry, really a meta-poetry whose administrators play in a sandbox beside the legislators of the world. This latter poetic function Sven Birkerts, channeling Ranier Rilke, identifies as the human being's seminal role—raising the world into consciousness, not just, "collectively, into a noosphere, and not digitally, into a cloud of data, but subjectively, inwardly, into language." ("The Room and the Elephant", Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)

All that has first been named can be data tagged but only after our fervency--Rilke's word—has expended itself. Thus, those who prioritize the Cloud have it backwards. Technologists are the post facto manipulators, the illusionists in our midst whereas poets keep it real. That's why the latter can't find jobs in a Big Data world. Birkerts quotes the following lines from Rilke's "Ninth Elegy":

Are we here perhaps just to say:

house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window --

at most, column, tower... but to say, understand this, to say it

as the Things themselves never fervently thought to be.

-- (C. F. MacIntyre, Translator)

Birkerts and Rilke invite us back to Jung's subjective self whose universe exists only because we have the eyes to (data) mine it. God recognizes Himself through our cognition. We suspect this pleases Him immensely. The Book of Job becomes a pre-Mosaic prototype for the Anthropic Principle. Data, by contrast, is a retrospective, a cataloguing of prior 'authenticities'.

Far and away most data, if not much of life itself, is hardly worth our powers of recollection. Yet in the Digital Age, every traversal of Sisyphus' hill becomes a discrete negotiation, an indexable transaction. By now Sisyphus' travelogue would require a supercomputer. There is no human act or gesture so beneath our retrospective radar that it can anymore slip, blithely undetected, into the veils of time. The NSA and its commercial doppelganger, Facebook, are committed to the eternality of the less-than-mundane. Interestingly, Sisyphus' punishment derived in part from chaining Thanatos, a ploy aimed literally at cheating death. Life seizes the moment. The life force doesn't look back. Data storage makes its bones with the dead.

All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex.
There's existential philosophy; then there's existential practicality. We compound Big Data's overhang by adding to it daily. However, it's in the here-and-now where the potential for comprehension is greatest. A host of nimble and proactive analytics tools loom on the horizon which will better prepare us for what Anukool Lakhina of Big Data company Guavus calls 'knowing the now' ("We Need to Prevent Insights from Dying in the Big Data Avalanche" Gigaom; 6 October 2012). Humanity's accumulated now's form Big Data's past. The future must be seized knowingly. We can ill-afford to dither and let it just happen.

The past will not be relinquished lightly as the bankers have our coupon books to keep track of. Old Power and Money cements its power on the backs of our deeply regretted past transactions. Usura's how they make their game in the present and promise the future to the image of the past. They are the celebrants of stasis. Under their rubric, we are going nowhere fast. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex. IBM Global Business Service's Teresa Pritchard-Schoch in a recent exchange called it Dino's Albatross:

"…we now see the head looking behind at an enormous tail, a tail so heavy that the creature can hardly move forward. It is a tail comprised of hoarded information, kept without any measure of true value. A tail that now puts the entire being at risk because it requires attention that should be paying attention to the environment in which it must survive."

Big Media casts its own Big Data footprint. We desecrate the up-close and sacred naming task with what novelist Don DeLillo calls white noise, that is, the make-work routine of papering over the hard work of consciousness-raising with a dust-layer of bytes and suspect media coordinates (or as DeLillo terms it, that "dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.''— White Noise). Mediation is a diversionary campaign that traffics in the propagandistic terms of clarification and distillation; or, if you prefer the Fox News coordinates, fair and balanced.

Big Media's Big Data diverts us from the task of Big Apprehension. We are kept to the realm of the observable. All that can be measured is pored over as though nothing else exists while Keats' infamous Vale toils at the crucial work of soul-making at the subjective 'unobserved' level. Yes of course, the poets' by-product, poems, are in evidence on the web. But the process of manufacturing soul through suffering evades the artifactual record. This flattening of poetry into bytes abets a shadow-project to equate poetry with food recipes and baseball scores. Suddenly at the time they are needed most, poets are marginalized further.

Fortunately, regular folks are more than taking up the slack. In the social media realm, we have the power to avert much of the Big Data landslide if only we could stop chattering amongst ourselves, continually giving up banal lives and journeyman repasts that surely drive our overlords to an ever rising contempt. Frankly, who could blame the Illuminati for its machinations as, handed the mic, all we could think to tweet was what we had for breakfast? My point Mr. Everyman, is that your grating ignorance and predilection for Eggo's may have bought you a dystopia that'll hang around well past the dinner hour. I told you to brush up on your Adorno and Marcuse. But nooo, you wouldn't leggo.

The real little man disease is well-earned envy as the floodgates of Facebook fly open only to reveal oceans of drivel. How oceanic, you ask? "Just two days of the current global data production, from all sources — five quintillion bytes (a letter of text equals one byte) — is about equal to the amount of information created by all the world's conversations, ever, according to research at the University of California, Berkeley." ("Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet", by Steve Lohr, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)

One could be forgiven for wanting to head some of this yadda-yadda off at the pass before the Word becomes flesh to make its dwellings among us. I mean, I gotta be me, you gotta be you. But must our Eggo's leave behind minable contrails? The collapse in embedded processor pricing will soon allow for smart toasters. Every appliance will have a snappy retort. Every briefcase will carry an airtight alibi. The world is irrevocably data and sensor-rich and there's no going back.

Going forward then, how can we vouchsafe an authentic human sphere within this sea of data? or is 'soul' ripe for a digitized deconstruction? The trans-humanists suggest Job v.2 will be a robot sent to teach the machine the ineffable nature of soul. That's provided the ineffable (that transcendent, 'extra-data' realm which literature purports to stalk) is indeed antithetical to data and not subsumable within a Big Data skein. Stephen Marche suggests as much: "Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data. The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data." ("Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities", Los Angeles Review of Books, 28 October 2012)

Marche's essay title hat-tips a vast field of endeavor known as Digital Humanities to which he (and I) probably give shamefully short shrift. Some of the mandates emanating from this new academic wing are tantalizingly terrifying. Here, Bruno Latour is discussing nothing less than Big Data's potential for cataloging the 'inner workings' of the soul:

The precise forces that mould our subjectivities and the precise characters that furnish our imaginations are all open to inquiries by the social sciences. It is as if the inner workings of private worlds have been pried open because their inputs and outputs have become thoroughly traceable."

-- "Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Digital Traces", Times Higher Education Literary Supplement, 6 April 2007

Wikileaks' Julian Assange pointed out recently that the East German secret police employed ten percent of the population at one time or another as informants. That sort of high overhead will cripple any enterprise. No wonder the Soviet bloc collapsed. Fortunately, the fascio-corporatists have our backs. The genius of Facebook is that it is an emoticon-besotted surveillance apparatus through which friends rat out friends routinely, unwittingly and for free. Hey, if I'm sending my buds to the Gulag, I want beer money to help subsidize my tears.

Big Thinker Jaron Lanier proposes an even starker equivalence in his latest book Who Owns the Future?: "Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be steered or stored on a digital network." Despite his defense of regular folks, Lanier seems oddly acquiescent to our object status as though we are in fact mere data warehouses, albeit with a propped-open backdoor. Nonetheless Lanier is onto something when he suggests the value-exchange is poorly understood by the average Facebook consumer-supplier.

In a nation of rip-offs, the thief is king, so it pays to study his M.O. Facebook aggressively runs all of its employees, regardless of formal function, through Big Data boot-camps in an effort to "promote a culture in which everyone uses data to test and ultimately roll out new products, design changes, and other improvements." ("What I Learned at Facebook's Big Data Boot-Camp"; CNN-Money-Fortune, by Michal Lev-Ram, 13 June 2013)

The Facebook micro-culture may augur the macro-culture, or is a nation of thieves unsustainable? Clearly, Facebook knows the trove over which it presides and the extractive capacity for all nearby hands to just dig in. Good for Facebook. Apply the distributive computing model over a massive pro bono user base, paint a solicitous happy face above the front door and the cost of data collection suddenly vanishes into the ether. Where the East Germans insisted on payment, we give ourselves and our loved ones up without a fight, without a nickel.

Alright, so everyone gets a shovel and we'll dig ourselves to a collective nirvana. On the other hand (said one equivocating economist to another), might what Big Data pioneer Jeffrey Hammerbacher calls the impending renaissance of the 'numerical imagination' yield up the metrics of what poets have insisted on calling since time immemorial, soul? Perhaps there is no ghost in the machine. Perhaps it's all machine. Perish the thought.

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