books & big data & my human dilemma

By in big data, bodies, digital, Humanities on September 8, 2013

I have a dilemma. The part of me that was trained as a social scientist is intrigued by big data while the part of me that is trained as a critical humanist is screaming “where are the humans!?” There is this whole beautiful book The Human Faces of Big Data that says it tackles the subject, but it is… weird. It is all weird right now. So I thought I might share a few more thoughts on the limits I’m seeing with big data as a concept. I suppose I should be up front and acknowledge that I never could quite catch the post-human bandwagon. I have no burning desire to merge with the machine anymore than I already have. In fact, I am quite happy with my life as a cyborg. That being said, we are being compiled as unique data sets in this new world of big data… Only I’m not sure how new it is.

Big Data and the Book

One of the earlier modes of downloading large amounts of data, that also captured spirits of  the human behind its creation (basically the beta release of post humanism) is the book. Books record of complex thoughts into a physicality corpus that was smaller than its creator yet captured thoughts in a transferable way, copy able way, reproduceable way… And had many of the same ownership problems we are seeing now with digital media, but also personal data… Here is why I can’t buy in to post humanism as it is being imagined in my little world of media & technology studies, would you ever look at a book and think “that’s a human”?  As in books, it seems there are no humans in big data. I’ve been searching for a bit and the human hasn’t revealed itself. It seems the human is only the start place and the end place for the machines to communicate, create machine readable knowledge, make decisions, and then predict the next action of the unique data set (individual actor, item or thing).

Big Data is Predictive Future Time

I think the scale of big data (omfg Zettabytes!) and the relationship to time are the biggest change. While books are always already a recording of past thoughts, big data is mobilized toward the future. While books are designed to influence current thought and possibly shape the future, the focus seems to be more on the past informing the now. Big Data with its focus on pattern recognition, prediction, and visualization of this information in artistic and abstract yet understandable terms seems to exist in what I am thinking is a concept of time that is always already grounded in the future. Big Data has limited value to the past, in as much as yes it helps us understand the past but isn’t mobilizable in a meaningful way unless we can some how use it to say something about the to come…

This is the central problem to me I think. When we don’t allow the “now” to exist… and I feel like big data moves so quickly, and there is so much of it that there is never a “now”, we don’t allow a space for human experience.  And while I love patterns, and I am fine with them existing, the space of experience is where humans create meaning out of this finite thing we call life. When we move towards understanding everything as a bit of data in a large data stream that can tell us something about the future, we erase the human, inherently.  And because we erase the human, the ethical components of big data are hard to place, because there are no bodies in data. We see the result of this when we look at the current actions that have come to light of the US Government, recent ebbs and flows of various exchanges that are now run by computers, my favorite big data story ever of Target contacting the pregnant teenager before she had the chance to tell her family, etc.

I know that there is work being done on biases in big data, which is awesome. I think in addition to that, we need to start asking where the human in big data is too. The concept of big data makes it easy to sort of lose the human in the stream… but we have countless examples to show that when it moves to places of power (government, target, financial markets, MOOCs!, etc), it is mobilized to discern the difference in individuals and individual items against the aggregate… and when this happens there are real world effects that happen to actual human bodies.

So yes. Actual humans and big data… where’s the conversation?

As an aside on the future of the book

Since I’ve been speaking with people over the years on the future of the book in the digital world, I’m beginning to wonder if the problem is that we are “out of time” when we try to translate the form. While books are always the past, digital data is always about the future at this point, because we are sort of big data now. As such, I feel like perhaps to get a digital “book” project would need to be incomplete, to be completed/expanded at a later time by multiple anonymous people outside of the original creator.

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