Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Big data, bigger problems.

Could it be that big data, and all the things we build to facilitate it, will in fact paralyse us?

Mon, Aug 26, 2013, 16:47


Here’s a piece I wrote in Monday’s paper about big data.

The Earth’s ice caps have now melted sufficiently for a $1 billion (€747 million) cable on the Northwest Passage’s seabed to become possible, which would enable stockbrokers in the UK and Japan to get rich or lose colossal amounts of money at a faster rate than they currently do. Go Team Humanity.

This is significant because there’s a lot of data fizzing underneath us constantly, so we apparently need bigger cables to transport it. The internet is not a cloud. It’s housed in a mess of cables and pipes under oceans and streets and stored in big buildings around the world. In these resilient filing cabinets that adopt the aesthetic of supervillains’ lairs, big data is getting bigger. Ninety per cent of the world’s data has been created in the past two years. Even though we’ve managed to kick around this planet for 200,000 years without storing everything we hear, see, do and make, big data is where it’s at.

The challenge in storing all of what my Irish teacher would have referred to as “ráiméis” (rubbish) is that sometimes the square pegs get confused and try to leap into triangular holes. And when that happens, it’s like an epic version of getting the Christmas tree lights tangled. The Nasdaq learned the hard way last week, when its system froze for three hours after square-peg data diverted itself into a triangular hole. Then everything stopped.

There’s a sense of Imelda Marcos’ shoes about big data – acquiring for the sake of acquisition. Words such as “quintillion” and “extabyte” have been invented just to describe how much of this data there is. The idea is that data is important because it teaches us something about ourselves. But there’s a big difference between data and information. Data is raw, information is processed. Data is the ingredients, information is the cake. Private internet companies want data so they can distil information that gets them closer to the bullseye of targeted advertising, and possibly other things they’re not so keen on talking about.

And boy do we enjoy giving it up. We’ve handed over bundles and bundles of personal information, which goes into a data foundry and gets moulded into a stick to beat us. Data, we are told, is the key. It helps us “understand” things more. It’s the data that positions dating websites in ads beside your email, or diet pills next to your Facebook profile, or phoney competitions to win iPad minis when all you’re trying to do is illegally stream a film on your iPad mini.

As a sideline quirk, to make this data more digestible, infographics bombard us with illustrated images. This information can sometimes be beautiful. But for the most part, visualised data is not about comprehension, but about comparison – positioning figures next to each other as if their juxtaposition will provide something illuminating, when frequently it just dims our understanding of everything. We are drowning in data, digitising ourselves to death. Companies are obsessed with data analysis, insinuating that tracking our lives more fiercely will lead to some kind of revelation, when it’s just about increasing commercial clout and surveillance.

Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube and the other lot are not holistic tools. They are not about bettering society. They are personal data-mining mechanisms trying to find out more about us so advertisers can sell us more stuff. Any collateral benefits are beautifully accidental, so beautiful that said companies can then claim responsibility for actual change. YouTube’s smugness about acting as a catalyst for the Arab Spring is as ludicrous as General Motors deciding it started the civil rights movement just because Rosa Parks stayed seated on their No 2857 bus in Montgomery. The tools may facilitate communication and broadcasting, but it is human behaviour itself that affects change. Technology does of course in turn change behaviour, but the behaviour is there from the get-go.

Here’s a cheery thought: Dazed and Confused magazine ran an interview with Robert Cailliau, the Belgian computer scientist who teamed up with Tim Berners-Lee to invent the world wide web. Referring to Fermi’s paradox (there are billions of galaxies with millions of planets housing intelligent life, many of which are millions of years ahead of us when it comes to technology, so why don’t they say “hi”?), Cailliau pondered: “So why haven’t they landed on Earth? Why haven’t we seen any extraterrestrials? Why isn’t there anybody out there?” Then he answered his own questions: “I think the answer may be that the digital world, once it takes hold of a planet, just destroys it.” Could it be that big data, and all the things we build to facilitate it, will in fact paralyse us?

In 1969, 19 years after Fermi got paradoxical, Brian Friel offered an interesting projection of the future in his play, The Mundy Scheme. Mr Mundy was an entrepreneur from Texas who approached the taoiseach of a near-bankrupt Ireland and offered a solution: buying plots of land at $100 per acre to make graves for North America’s dead. Be it “value-less land” in the west of Ireland as per Mr Friel, or polar ice-caps that are doing fibre optics a favour, we run the risk of turning not just our planet into data graveyards, but our very selves.