Consumed in Bytes (Big Data, Big Profits, Big Government)

Reviewing Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think (by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier), Mark P. Mills, writing in the City Journal, takes a distinctly rosy view of the data revolution, a revolution powered by an estimated 1200 exabytes (1.2 zettabytes and growing) of stored data.

Computer technology in action

In a week in which the traitor-hero, whistleblowing ex-spy and fugitive Edward Snowden has been tasting the Kafkaesque experience of statelessness in a Moscow airport lounge, this book is timely, even if its optimism seems naive.

Mills reckons that the emergence of Big Data “marks the pivot in history when computing will finally become useful for nearly everyone and everything.”

Big data analytics will see software growing from a $350 billion to a multi-trillion dollar industry as companies and governments mine the information consumers leave scattered on the web and turn it into profit and power.

A world measured in Zettabytes

One can, of course, view this as benign, and Mills points out that the NSA, Google, Facebook and Amazon can monitor data without invading personal privacy. They are more interested, initially, in the patterns and correlations that the data reveal, rather than the specific content. He writes: “Sometimes the data associated with an object, activity or transaction have more value than the thing they measure… Observational data can yield enormously predictive tools.”

But this won’t always be so.

At some point, Big Data will end up hacking itself to pieces and consuming them in a vast, self-referential mess of bytes.

Consumed in Bytes


  1. says:

    @sandie – “shares in art” sounds ominously like wanting to give your money to charles saatchi….

  2. Yes, it does seem an overly positive view. I shan’t be rushing out to buy stock in data analysis software development companies just yet. Where’s the debate on quality? It seems we’re supposed to be impressed by sheer size… but if large percentages of what’s collected is rubbish then being able to collect more – in the hope that at least % of it will be usable – becomes some sort of surreal imperative that, as I think you say towards the end of this piece, will likely drown itself.

    There may come a point in the future whereby a single small thing, perceived in the moment and enjoyed for what it is, not what it might mean or lead to or lever, will be seen as something rare and beautiful… my vote is for shares in art not Big Business, for the long-term speculator.

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