June 29, 2014


Every Datum Tells a Story : The dawning of the age of meta-information (MARK P. MILLS AND M. ANTHONY MILLS, 29 June 2014, City Journal)

Without the benefit of hindsight, it's not always apparent what a new technology will mean or how it will change the way we live. That's especially true for the period we've just entered, which may one day be known as the Age of Big Data, the Dawn of the Cloud, or even, in Cisco's formulation, the Zettabyte Era.

The zetta prefix denotes an incomprehensible number of zeros: a billion trillion of them. Because bytes measure the microscopic currency of computers and communications systems, such numbers say a lot about the scale of the hardware infrastructure underlying our modern information technology. But counting bytes today is like counting, in 1914, the comparable number of drops of ink used to form the letters in print circulation. It's impressive but not terribly useful.

Still, computer and software experts gather at conferences to talk about how big and unprecedented the numbers are, how the concept of "big data" changes everything. Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, observed at a recent seminar that "what we're talking about is something humanity has never tried to deal with before." [...]

We are now witnessing the emergence of a new type of data derived from every aspect of human interaction and behavior, from commercial exchanges to biological processes.

How will these technologies transform human communication? The beginnings of an answer can be found in the nearly century-old writings of German critic Walter Benjamin, who came of age during the first information revolution. He belonged, as he put it, to a "generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar" but that "now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds . . . and the tiny, fragile human body." Among these changes, Benjamin thought, was the loss of an authentic form of human experience--storytelling. Before the telegraph and the printing press, storytellers communicated by word of mouth. Stories imparted practical wisdom and timeless lessons that were seamless and intuitive to the listener. These lessons were preserved in a collective cultural memory.

But the era of storytelling was overtaken by the era of information, a wholly new mode of communication revolving around facts, rather than experience. The purpose of facts is to inform, not teach. Information, Benjamin says, is "understandable in itself." It does not need to be preserved but is "consumed" and forgotten as soon as it becomes "old." Information is not timeless but timely.

The communication of information requires not storytellers but intermediaries. Benjamin's time saw the rise of an expanding cadre of professional journalists critical to the process of selecting, interpreting, and communicating facts. Moreover, information was not universally accessible; its consumption was subject to social, educational, and financial constraints.

Today, we stand at a historical turning point similar to the one that Benjamin lived through. A generation that went to school in buses driven by human beings will likely live to see a world of vehicles driven by robots. Data sensors and recorders are embedded into machinery, the environment, and even our bodies. Wireless networks share and algorithms sort, analyze, and store the data in virtual collective-memory banks, compiling treasure troves of--as yet--mostly untapped knowledge. More than 80 percent of all data remain beyond the reach of today's nascent big-data analytics.

Posted by at June 29, 2014 5:47 PM

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