CCCB: Big Bang Data

Hello World, by Christopher Baker.

Hello World, by Christopher Baker.

The Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) is currently running an interesting exhibition on the explosive growth of “Big Data“.

The exhibition is definitely worth a visit if you are in Barcelona, but it is as interesting for what it omits as for what it contains.

For example, one exhibit is a 2011 installation representing the number of Flickr photo uploads in one one day. Needless to say, it is quite a lot. But the number of daily uploads now is roughly double what it was three years ago, not withstanding Flickr’s well documented user-interface changes and the explosive growth of alternatives such as Instagram.

That explosive growth of online data is very hard to convey, much less easy to understand.

For example, few people understand why big data matters. An excellent recent article by Bob Cringely observes the connection between bit data and artificial intelligence, and how increasingly it is becoming possible to build usefully functional AIs while not understanding precisely how they work, nor how reliable they may be. Furthermore, these systems are gradually encroaching upon knowledge-work that, unlike manual labour, has so far been spared the decimating results of automation. An impressive recent example of a big data AI is IBM’s Watson – which after beating human contestants at Jeopardy is now being commercialised for more serious tasks (follow the link for an excellent video on this).

Big data also inevitably means “big capture” and “big processing”. Those that can use and benefit from it will be those that have the resources to do so – effectively only companies such as Google, and national governments – particularly if they are prone to build agencies like the NSA. It is questionable as to whose benefit these technologies will be put.

The contraction of possible work that can only be done by a human and the concentration of the control of these systems will have huge social consequences. Left unchecked, it will only sharpen the huge inequalities in wealth distribution and employment that are already problematic. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is difficult to see how anything like the current global economic system can continue in its current form.

All of this means that there is huge change coming in terms of control, privacy, and work. While visually entertaining, Big Bang Data unfortunately skips over most of these questions. Human art is seriously lagging behind computerised reality…

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