Put a little Smolan in your stocking


Last week, we talked about the assumptions people make prior to manipulating and analyzing data sets and how even long-held and reasonable assumptions can lead one astray. This week, we want to talk about conclusions people reach based on those assumptions and the data analysis. And for that, we turn first to Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt's coffee table book extravaganza: "The Human Face of Big Data."

I have flipped through all the fascinating photos, but this being a book about data, I have gone back to the beginning to consume the text as well. I am only halfway through. It's a big book.

It's also a great concept with great results. However, I do cringe at some of the hype and superlatives I read (not Smolan's but those he quotes), such as defining big data as the process of helping the planet grow a nervous system, one in which we are just another type of sensor. The earth doesn't give a blip or a bit about us. It can't. It's rock and gas and organic compounds. We are more like a cancer to it than a nervous system, but I digress.

I do agree that "big data may well turn out to be the most powerful tool set the human race has ever had, to address the widespread challenges facing our species and our planet." However, big data has a long way to go before eclipsing the impact of language itself as some have suggested. For one thing, language is used by everyone, whereas big data has the potential to help or harm everyone depending on how it is wielded by what ultimately may be a select group of priests lording over our mountains of data.

Mostly, the book is fascinating and documents the people and methods that have already led to life-altering developments, such as personalized medicine and treatment for cystic fibrosis patients or those with Parkinson's disease, or blindness. It also shows how people who have tracked their weight and other health indicators online have helped, perhaps unwittingly, in the development of new approaches to health and wellness. It tells us how close we are to a full-surveillance society, how likely we are to understand the universe and how far we are from bringing the entire world along with us. Also, I am finding that there is a lot of subjectivity and relativism in the meaning being found. I thought big data was supposed to reduce that.

No page in the book is uninteresting, but it remains to be seen if the book's first bullet point--illustrated fabulously by a composite photo of New York's Time's Square--namely, that the average person today processes more data in a single day than a person in the 1500s did in an entire lifetime--is a good or bad development. It has certainly ruined the attention span of this old brain. And I worry that some people might start to see their "digital exhaust"--the stream of text, browsing history and other online habits--as their legacies, rather than the actual impact they might otherwise have. I can see it on Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) already and am somewhat guilty myself.

When it comes to the art of big data, I admit to getting a little lost and, as mentioned, concerned about subjectivity. Knowing that art appreciation is often subjective, I let others tell me why some art is important while other art is not. Still, I wonder just what it tells us when someone creates a "clinically plotted, three-dimensional graph whose prime purpose is counter-intuitive aestheticizing of information" based on population growth from 1790 to 2010. If framed, the result would complement my sofa nicely, but what does it tell us?

Likewise, the image developed by linking all 66,779 cross references found in the Bible and the number of verses in each chapter into a thinly-lined, colored arch was breathtaking and might fit the space over my fireplace, but what does it uncover about the underlying truths of the scriptures? Nothing. As artists, I am sure the authors know what makes this image meaningful, and there is nothing wrong with having a little fun and being creative, but if you're going to use big data to analyze something one-third of the world believes is its salvation, wall art should not be the result.

I suppose a book that excluded art could be dull, but I think the realities big data should reveal and the stories about how its use and abuse might affect us are plenty. And in that regard, this book is plenty good. - Tim