Who’s Your Data?

The Big Bang of the Data Universe is Upon us

You’d have to be living under a rock these days to have not at least heard of (and been at least a little curious about): “big data”; the “internet of things”; and bitcoin.

But I can’t throw rocks if you confess you were only slightly curious, because until a few weeks ago, I didn’t get it.

Then I had the AHA moment. I began to slowly realize the extent to which this psycho-social techno-behavioral cognitive and predictive data tsunami is already upon us, aware or not.

We already have the germplasm of this new knowledge (if not the wisdom how to use it) gestating in our lives, embedded in our bank accounts, our health records, our communications, politics, and commerce–ready or not.

And it is NOT just the matter of QUANTITY of data that makes this of immense importance, but the kinds of very fine-grained questions this will allow us to ask (and answer) about the cosmos, the environment, the stock market, and the politics and posturing of nations.

NOTE: The Target hack, the NSA’s extensive deep privacy intrusions and Google’s recent purchase of NEST are just nascent signs of things to come.

I’m just starting to gather some rather puny personal data on all this Big Data, and already the topic is far too enormous for a blog post and beyond my capacity to grasp sufficient to distill into a series of posts–though I may try, at the risk of readers running for the hills.

Here’s how Intel defines our topic:

Big data opportunities emerge in organizations generating a median of 300 terabytes of data a week. The most common forms of data analyzed in this way are business transactions stored in relational databases, followed by documents, e-mail, sensor data, blogs, and social media. [The sensor part takes off when smartdust, motes and the Internet of Things (IoT) explodes this decade.] 

But maybe this is a non-issue. The full birth of this paradigm shift is predicated on the assumption of more or less normal and stable health of the economy, of the power grid and growth in computational speed and memory. It presumes business as usual.  (You might hold off putting too much money there just now.)

But assume today’s trends move forward for another decade. Maybe even two. If that happens, then this (roughly paraphrased) statement I read recently might be close to target:

The big data revolution, as it matures from data collection to data interpretation to data-driven implementation across all aspects of human existence, will wield an impact on humanity’s future course that is no less revolutionary than the coming of the spoken and then the written word.

As with any technology, this one tends to trend toward very black and very white. Some would argue that the black aspects dominate and, given what we’re seeing about human nature, these sinister impulses will inevitably dictate the deployment of the Quantification of Everything and the control that this provides to the Keepers of the Data.

If anyone is interested (lord help us out of our stunning apathy to important issues before they are full born!) this BrainPickings piece is a good place to start. Also if you’re prepared to handle it, add “big data” to a Google news alert, and hold onto your hat.

The Brain Pickings piece especially considers how this technology will change the way we see and think about ourselves rather than focus, like the majority of verbiage on this topic, on the dollars it will purportedly drive into the collective bank accounts of the technorati who will become like gods.

So be intrigued. And be appaled. That seems about the right mix.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. What a great link, Brain Pickings. Good for you, biology watcher and environmentalist, for branching out into such uncharted waters. Take us along, maybe once a week.