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Big Data Is Watching You

A new generation of supercomputers is allowing us to process information in ways that were once unimaginable—and which remain unpredictable

Author Boyd Farrow

ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH NEGLEY

YOU MIGHT NOT BE AWARE OF IT, but you’re being buried beneath a mountain of clutter. Every day, the global stock of digital information grows by about 2.5 quintillion bytes (a quintillion, in case you’ve forgotten, is a 1 followed by 18 zeros). And the main force behind this insane proliferation can be summed up in a single word: you.

Every time you buy a book on Amazon, change your profile pic on Facebook or use your car’s GPS, you’re adding to the heap—and the thing about all this stuff is that it never goes away. The digital detritus just keeps accumulating, making it increasingly difficult to find the information you actually need. In fact, our society has reached the point where it’s amassed so much information, no one could possibly make sense of it all.

Or at least that was the case until the advent of Big Data, a technology that has provided us with what might be termed an archivist of everything, storing and sorting the facts of the world via a new generation of supercomputers that operate at unimaginable speeds. This in turn has led to a couple of game-changing advances in the way we process data.

The first of these is that, beyond reaching conclusions, computers are now able to make assumptions, to anticipate users’ needs rather than merely responding to them. So it is that you have social networking sites pointing you to the friend-of-a-friend you didn’t know existed, e-tailers suggesting the perfect birthday gift for your Great-Aunt Dora, or a local auto dealer sending you a special offer at the exact moment your car kicks the bucket. The levels of synthesis and analysis being employed to these ends are not only beyond human capability, but often beyond human comprehension as well.

The second major shift is the way in which Big Data allows us to unite the digital and material worlds. At the supermarket, for example, strategically placed cameras record your actions, which are then transformed into a constellation of data points, showing retailers how long you study every item. in a similar vein, face recognition technology can gather images from security cameras, analyze those images to establish the movement patterns of a suspected criminal, then make an educated guess as to where that person may be at any given time.

The potential for the abuse of such capabilities is obvious, but so are the potential benefits. Ecologists are using similarly intrusive methods to trace the migratory patterns of endangered aquatic species, for example. And, as the technology’s defenders are keen to point out, Big Data is already revolutionizing the healthcare industry. With such computational power at researchers’ fingertips, the 13 years it took to map the human genome could be reduced to mere hours. Big Data may soon be able to anticipate when an individual might suffer a heart attack; it might even find a cure for cancer one day.

In a bid to show how beneficial this technology can be, data storage giant EMC partnered with Rick Smolan — the man behind the epic “Day in the Life” crowdsourcing projects — for an initiative called “The Human Face of Big Data.” The project aims to document every conceivable way that Big Data can improve the world, from stemming the tide of counterfeit pharmaceuticals in Africa to making our home appliances more energy-efficient.

Smolan, a true believer, has likened Big Data to a kind of planetary central nervous system. The idea is that once everything in the world has been linked to everything else, there is no problem that cannot be overcome—except, perhaps, the problems raised by the fact that everything in the world is linked to everything else. Once this happens, you can say goodbye to privacy. And we’re not only talking sinister, Big Brother-style prying here.

Consider the recent case of a Minneapolis teenager who went shopping at Target. Based on what she did while she was there, which was duly recorded and analyzed, the store subsequently mailed her ads for maternity clothing and nursery furniture. The girl’s parents were a little surprised, let’s say, to discover their baby was pregnant.

It’s possible that the single biggest potential problem with Big Data is this: Even the smartest computers can be kind of stupid sometimes.

Boyd Farrow, a London-based editor and writer, believes he is responsible for about a third of the world’s digital clutter.

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