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Every Breath You Take

July 11, 2013

Mark P. Mills in City Journal:

mobile-phone-police-surveillance-feature-largeCovering everything that’s happening today with information technology in one book is a monumental challenge. As if to acknowledge that difficulty, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, authors of Big Data, begin by describing the data’s magnitude. They note, for instance, that the amount of data now stored around the world is an estimated 1,200 exabytes (itself an already dated and debatable number), which can be expressed as an equally incomprehensible 1.2 zettabytes. “If it were all printed in books, they would cover the entire surface of the United States some 52 layers thick.”

Big Data’s authors observe that humanity is marching into unfamiliar territory: “Ultimately big data marks the moment when the ‘information society’ finally fulfills the promise implied by its name. The data takes center stage. All those digital bits that we have gathered can now be harnessed in novel ways to serve new purposes and unlock new forms of value.” Put more simply, the emergence of “big data”—whatever we think we mean by that term—marks the pivot in history when computing will finally become useful for nearly everyone and everything. (…)

For science fiction aficionados, Isaac Asimov anticipated the idea of using massive data sets to predict human behavior, coining it “psychohistory” in his 1951 Foundation trilogy. The bigger the data set, Asimov said then, the more predictable the future. With big-data analytics, one can finally see the forest, instead of just the capillaries in the tree leaves….Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier begin their exploration of analytics with an oft-cited example: Google data about the location and frequency of searches for “the flu” are already more effective in tracking the rise and vector of an epidemic than anything the Centers for Disease Control can do.

The fascinating thing about the scale of massive data sets is that, as Asimov predicted, they can reveal trends, even behaviors, that tell us what will happen without the need to know the “why.” (That was the trope in the movie Minority Report, based on a 1956 story by another great sci-fi writer, Philip K. Dick.) With robust correlations, you don’t need a theory to predict; you just know….The “why” of many things that we observe, from entropy to evolution, has eluded physicists, philosophers, and theologians. What’s new about big data is the extension of our observational powers into so much, from the profound to the trivial.

There are important, even troublesome, public-policy and social implications. The ongoing controversy over government and NSA investigation methods using analytics is just one example: “In addition to challenging privacy, these uses of big data raise another unique and troubling concern: the risk that we may judge people not just for their actual behavior but for the propensities the data suggest they have.” [More]

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