Friday, August 23, 2013

The Digital Faust

Burgess Meredith in “Time Enough to Last"
In an article in Foreign Affairs (“The Rise of Big Data, May/June 2013), Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger make the following comment, “In the third century B.C. the Library of Alexandria was believed to house the sum of human knowledge. Today, there is enough information in the world to give every person alive 320 times as much of it as historians think was stored in Alexandria’s entire collection—an estimated 1200 exabytes’ worth, If this information were placed on CD’s and they were stacked up, the CD’s would form five separate piles that would all reach to the moon.” There is a famous Twilight Zone, “Time Enough to Last," where Burgess Meredith plays the role of a man who just wants to be left alone with all his books. He gets his wish. The problem is that he is nearly blind and as he is about to sate his desire, his glasses crack. Cukier and Mayer-Schoenberger describe the advent of a condition which is a little like the effect global warming has had on weather and the environment. Shrinkage of polar ice caps have unleashed huge amounts of water which affect sea levels and inevitably in a kind of domino effect air and water currents (like El Nino), ultimately resulting in many of the explosive, tornadoes, tsunamis and severe tropical storms from Katrina to the recent debacle created by Sandy. In a short period of time the information explosion created primarily by digitalization, the internet and most importantly by what Cukier and Mayer-Schoenberger term “datafication,” (in their words “a far broader activity: taking all aspects of life and turning them into data. Google’s augmented reality-glasses datafy the gaze. Twitter datafies stray thoughts. LinkedIn datafies professional networks.”) has reached tsunami levels. It’s as if we are drowning in information, with only soothsayers aka search engines like Google, who themselves are driven by mysterious algorithmic forces that few really understand, providing a beam of light. It’s Faust all over again. Mankind has sold its soul in his quest for ultimate knowledge. Will the price for the striving be a form of ignorance in which the brain, like old car radiators, boils over and finally quits? It’s a theme that Jorge Luis Borges developed in his famous story "The Library of Babel." You can know a lot about a little or a little about a lot. But it’s virtually impossible to know a lot about a lot.

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