Review By Justin Goodman
Edward Snowden remains in Russia. Whether you consider him for a Nobel or Potassium Chloride, this is as true as the ignorance of the general populous about the power of Big Data prior to his act. PBS’ one-hour special, The Human Face of Big Data, likely wouldn’t be airing on the 24th of this month without the leak. While it makes mention of the data abuse we undergo everyday (be it from Google for revenue or the NSA for security), ultimately it argues against detractors with the ecstatic optimism that led the German philosopher Martin Heidegger to end his increasingly relevant essay, “A Question Concerning Technology,” on the hopeful note “but where danger is, grows/the saving power also.” Throughout the entirety of WWII, Heidegger would remain a member of the Nazi party.
Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, explains in a stoned monotone how “every single action that we do…is triggering off some amount of data,” and how “most of that data is meaningless until someone adds some interpretation of it…a narrative.” Numerous graphs follow, elaborating exactly how removed from data production we are on a personal level; imagine John Dalton, who developed the Atomic Theory, giddily explaining (with a smirk of vindication) your relationship to atoms. And there are truly amazing uses for these computational methods. Deb Roy discovering that children learn words based off contextualization and not repetition, for instance, or an app in Boston that collects data on when your car is jostled in order to locate potholes for more efficient maintenance. There’s the potential for a brilliant future that ends in what the most famous Futurist, Ray Kurzweill, calls the Technological Singularity: the point where technology enters deific status.
The special pushes a lot of further examples on the viewer to induce this vision. It definitely helps to be reassured by scientists, journalists, and business leaders who all espouse the virtuous powers of big data. Yet, besides the slickness of the entire production, there’s the salesman’s eliding over problems and consequences. As Dorsey said, “someone adds some interpretation” of the data. The most interesting display of big data’s vague power is with Google’s search feature, which stores the search terms for advertising. Using these terms, it was discovered by researchers that they could track the location of possible flu outbreaks faster than doctor’s analog reports to the CDC. Emphasis being on “possible.” Just as drivers want to avoid damaging their cars by driving through potholes (ergo weakening the Boston app’s viability), “there’s a flipside,” in Stephen Downs’ words, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Information Officer. Search terms are equally affected by what the media reports.
Putting aside snark—one could note that Boko Haram has yet to appear in Virginia, despite being the state’s most googled term in 2015—putting aside aggravation when considering the political connotations of big data, The Human Face of Big Data is a superstar: “get my good side.” It never considers the transitional issues that will occur from human autonomy to robotic hegemony, symbolized by the Google self-driving car’s inability to predict human behavior on the road. And most peculiar to consider is the appearance of Tim O’Reilly among those to vow for the sanctity of big data. O’Reilly is what might be called a futurist whose liberal bent helped to rebrand the internet as Web 2.0 after the Dot-Com Crash, and freely available software as Open Source. He even challenged Amazon’s attempt to patent one-click payments in 1998. The closest O’Reilly has gotten to actual scientific work is Frank Herbert, a book about the sci-fi author; he has a B.A. in Classics.
In the recently published I Hate the Internet, Jarrett Kobek traces the Information Age’s blooming in San Francisco. I would call it (as I suggest in The Compulsive Reader) the bad side of the human face of big data. While these men toy with the petabytes of information of billions of people, their appreciation of what they’re doing is limited to science fiction from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Human Face of Big Data is computer generated, regardless of attempts to re-label the current geological period as the Anthropocentric. And Heidegger would go on to claim his rhetoric praising the Nazis was double speak, long after the war’s end, when he would publish “A Question Concerning Technology.” The Human Face of Big Data reminds us of its saving power, but will we see the danger in time?