Achtung! Eric Spiekermann

Instead of running the risk of making your brain hurt trying to get to grips with the sheer amount of information being processed by Big Data, dip into Asimov’s sci-fi to understand the why…

Instead of running the risk of making your brain hurt trying to get to grips with the sheer amount of information being processed by Big Data, dip into Asimov’s sci-fi to understand the why…

We live in the physical world where we have headaches, birthdays, houses, jobs, traffic jams, architectural magazines and all sorts of material possessions that keep us occupied. What we do in this physical world, however, is being recorded and more often than not used against us by what is called Big Data.

Our present location is known to some database or other, it knows where we shop and what we buy. We know that there are galaxies full of stars we haven’t even begun to count and billions of genomes waiting to be discovered and named. We can predict whether there’ll be a traffic c jam in London tomorrow, what the weather will be like in Timbuktu next week and how much Nutella will be consumed at breakfast tables in any given country on any given day of the week.

A lot of that data is available to us via devices at our fingertips that famously contain more computing power than Mission Control did for the Apollo space programme. The digital information in our world is said to be growing by roughly five trillion bits a second, five times as much as IBM’s new Holey Optochip (not a commercial product yet) can pump out. These trillion bits fit on to a 1 sq in heat-assisted magnetic recording device (not a commercial product yet) and far outnumber the stars in the Milky Way, which astronomers put at between 200 billion and 400 billion. (A trillion is a 1 with 12 zeros, ie 1012.) The more I try to explain this to myself, the more it makes my brain hurt.

So Big Data knows what we’re up to, but do we know what Big Data is up to? There is a parallel universe out there with its own rules, codes, viruses — its own biology and physics. We have absolutely no idea what happens inside that universe, except that now and again it makes itself known to us by invading our world, as it did during that ‘Flash Crash’ at the stock market on 6 May, 2010. The New York Times wrote: ‘As computerized high frequency traders exited the stock market, the resulting lack of liquidity… caused shares of some prominent companies like Procter & Gamble and Accenture to trade down as low as a penny or as high as $100,000.’ This led to a Congressional Hearing, to reports by the American Securities and Exchange Commission and to a lot of academic research, but still nobody really knows what caused it. Was it an event within Big Data’s parallel universe?

We’ll never know what we don’t know. But could it be that our lives are part of a larger pattern that is invisible to us? This unknown mechanism has usually been explained as interference by some higher authority, with belief replacing science. A more cynical explanation was offered in Kurt Vonnegut’s book The Sirens of Titan, in which an explorer from another galaxy manipulates human history so that primitive humans evolve and create a civilisation in order to produce a small spare part for his broken spaceship. If the complete evolution of Earth only serves that purpose (which could, indeed, be deemed divine), then the Mayans may have seen and depicted that very ship.

Alan Turing showed that a very simple set of instructions, if left to run endlessly, can produce complex results. Unfortunately for us, it will actually result in statements and behaviour that we will not be able to comprehend. Unpredictable events — surprises — may occur. And the Flash Crash event has shown that they do exactly that.

Looking at the financial markets these days and the erratic attempts by politicians, economists, mathematicians and computer scientists to explain the mechanics behind them, we realise that nobody has an idea how things work and why, let alone what to do in order for us to understand and ultimately be able to actually run the systems that seem to have taken over.

Classical theories have all failed. Now scientists have turned to chaos theory and complex systems like anthills (!) in order to build predictive systems that can handle those huge amounts of data and -as they put it — ‘react and execute transactions, all in real time’. (The seemingly random behaviour of ants does succeed in building incredibly complex structures. Do ants know what they’re doing?)

Hari Seldon is the man who had it all figured out. He understood the laws that governed history and society. Unfortunately, he is the central character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, a story set a few thousand years in the future.

Perhaps while our scientists study anthills, our leaders should start reading science fiction to understand what Big Data is up to.

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