We question. We research. We catalogue. We quantify. We aggregate, calculate, communicate, analyse, extrapolate and conclude. And eventually, if we're fortunate and thoughtful, we understand.
These are the contours of the society that has taken shape in the past generation with the rise of an unstoppable, invisible force that changes human lives in ways from the microscopic to the gargantuan: data, a word that was barely used beyond small circles before World War II but now governs the day for many of us from the moment we awaken to the extinguishing of the final late-evening light bulb.
This is the playing field of The Human Face of Big Data, by Rick Smolan (A Day in the Life of America) and Jennifer Erwitt, an enormous volume the size of a flat-screen computer monitor that chronicles, through a splash of photos and eye-opening essays and graphics, the rise of the information society.
The book itself is a curious, wonderful beast - a solid slab that captures a virtual universe. Weighing in at nearly five pounds (a companion iPad app is available), it is being delivered Tuesday by the publisher to what it calls some of the world's most influential people, including the CEOs of Yahoo and Starbucks and Amazon, Oprah Winfrey and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The goal, say those behind the project, is to "ignite a conversation about an extraordinary knowledge revolution."
You would think that capturing such a sprawling - and, one might easily conclude, inherently nonvisual - societal change would be difficult in a coffee-table book. You'd be wrong. This is one of those rare animals that captures its era in the most distinct of ways. It's the kind of thing you'd put in a time capsule for your children today to show them, long after you're gone, what the world was like at the beginning of their lives.
The obvious is here, of course - the crimefighting, the moneymaking, the advertising, the breathtaking medical advances, the dark pathways of data nefariousness. But there are more unexpected tales as well. Among the pools the book dips into:
- How data can provide utterly unexpected results: In Singapore, a project designed to look at why people couldn't get a taxi during a rainstorm came back with a surprising dividend - the cabs, fearful of accidents and the financial impact they cause even for drivers who may not be at fault, were just pulling over when it started to pour. Now they're changing policies to counteract that problem.
- How global connectivity can beget entirely new forms of storytelling: The Johnny Cash Project invites people worldwide to share their visual representations of the iconic musician, and each submission is combined with others to create a music video that keeps changing based on the images that people are sending in.
- How crowdsourcing is changing science: "Technology grants us the ability to harness wisdom from anywhere for specific projects, encouraging scientists to cooperate more, seek other points of view and share their achievements quickly - "the beginning of a democratization of discovery," writes science journalist Gareth Cook.
- How machines are now communicating among themselves (though no sign yet of Skynet from the "Terminator" movies): "Humans will no longer be the center of the data solar system, with all of the billions of devices orbiting around us, but will rather become just another player, another node, in an increasingly autonomous data universe," writes technological thinker Esther Dyson.
Brave new world? Of course. Yet it's easy to be unsettled by all of this. Hackers lurk everywhere; organisations like WikiLeaks are - depending on your politics - irresponsibly revealing secrets or responsibly liberating information. And anytime the notions of biology and technology meld, it's difficult not to summon images of the part-human, part cybernetic Borg from Star Trek.
In the face of so many preconceptions, what makes The Human Face of Big Data so engaging, so important, is its balanced tone. This is not a screed, in either direction. Technology is not greeted only as a marvel to be worshipped, nor is it cast as only a villain whose bits and bytes can blight our inherent humanity. The notion of making sense of information, of unpacking what the changes that data has wrought will mean to all of us, is the underpinning of the book.
That's as it should be: As information's pathways and archives develop at breakneck speeds, we must race, too, to develop a vocabulary to describe and critique its rise. Passionate, critical thinking about a subject is still the sole purview of humanity - at least for now.
"The history of mankind has always been influenced by a shortage of knowledge," technology and business writer Michael S Malone says in one essay. "Now the opposite - an information surplus - may soon define our lives."
The question, of course, runs even deeper. There is information, there is knowledge and there is wisdom. And no matter how many strong numbers we humans have at our disposal, if we can't understand the important differences between those three categories, the odds are good that we're on a path not toward 1, but toward 0. Save to the cloud and fire up the iPad tonight, sure - but do it with open eyes and probing mind. "Not everything that can be counted counts," warns a saying that Albert Einstein loved, "and not everything that counts can be counted."
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