Big Bang Data: frightening but familiar

Today I went round the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House. It raises really important questions – many with frightening implications – but I left without many new insights.

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At the start of the Big Bang Data exhibition in Somerset House, you are warned that by buying a ticket you are giving permission for video and photos of your visit to be used. It’s in quite big type, in the ticket foyer. I imagine – but don’t know for sure – most other public events have similar conditions, but tucked away. Here, though there is a stinger in the tail, one you only realise right at the end.

Mostly we don’t read the terms and conditions of using the internet, whether that’s our phone we browse with, or the website we sign up to, or the app we download. Alex Hern, a technology reporter at The Guardian did, and it made him want to die.

The exhibition shows just how much data we all produce, and how many different uses it can have, how many different ways it can be represented, and how much power accrues to those who can access and make sense of it, how much threat we are under from Big Brother gathering our Big Data.

If that sounds familiar, then it is. Anyone who has been working on the consequences of the digital revolution has had to start thinking about these things. For instance, that we talk about the internet as if it is all information, but it is anchored in the real world through cables, and ugly server buildings and energy use. (For me this echoes Cartesian Dualism, that somehow mind and body are separate. This belief is deep in the Western psyche, and, for some sustainability thinkers, the key to our separation from nature and so why we treat it so badly.)

Also, that there are issues of privacy. One artist has matched hacked photos with hacked music, to give a public slideshow where no permissions were possible. Another has turned all the sexual encounters he had with his wife into a infographic that looks very tasteful until you read the key.

There are moments of beauty, like the globes in the my photo above. Each of these is a different infographic, bewitching and somehow drawing you forward to touch them. There is a staff member there just to stop you spinning the globes.

My main feeling, though, was of having the overwhelming sense that known, huge problems are going under-addressed. There was a section on ‘Data for the Common Good’, with various examples of positive attempts to use the inevitable data tsunami in ways that help humanity. But these felt small and late compared to the efforts represented in the rest of the exhibition to apply the Big Data for private profit and a creepy form of security (yes, a public good but we don’t give the police our house keys ‘just in case’ that will be useful, so why give them the data that describes our lives?). I didn’t leave the exhibition with many new insights on what to do about it.

Contrast with Jaron Lanier‘s Who Owns the Future?. Not an easy book by any stretch, and my sense is Lanier is trying to write in a a different register to shake the reader out of analytical norms – which makes it difficult to evaluate. He has fears about Siren Servers, who concentrate wealth in the hands of the few who control the data centers and processing capability but don’t have to pay to get the data in. But he also has proposals about what to do about it, a two-way linking system that would point to the source of any piece of information, creating an economy of micropayments that compensates people for original material they post to the web.

My two take aways from the exhibition were:

  • The Big Data bang is happening, and inevitably with expand and grow further.
  •  What matters now are the ways we organise ourselves in society to get the from it all.

So, that takes me back  – with due respect to confirmation bias – to  the interplay of economics, law, politics and more that set the operating context for individuals and organisations, and are expressions of dominant beliefs in society, namely the political economy that I’m considering in my sabbatical.

What are the new sorts of institutions and regulations and norms and so on that we can provide that get the bang we need? It seems unlikely these will be initiated by, or hosted by, the nation-state. So, we’ll have to create our own. And there were flashes of this in the exhibition, for instance the Open Data Institute.

And the stinger? Well, it wasn’t that your image might be used later in some promotional material about the exhibition. You were tracked as you went through the exhibition. When you got to the end there was a live display of how people were moving around. It wasn’t data in the abstract; you were the data and the data was live.

It did reinforce the frighteners – and the sense that we need new ideas, soon, on how to adapt.

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