Just How Big is Big Data?


The panel at last night’s screening. Left to right, Briana Bierschbach, MinnPost reporter, Sandy Smolan, Kim Witzak and Kevin Warmerdam of SPA.

Last night we had an excellent invitation to check out TPT’s new space in Lowertown and to preview tonight’s broadcast of The Human Face of Big Data, a documentary about the dizzying acceleration of progress in our ability to gather and crunch numbers about ourselves. It will be broadcast tonight (Wednesday, February 24) on TPT2 at 9 PM.
Director and producer Sandy Smolan was there to introduce the film and be part of a post screening panel that included our friend Kim Witzak and others. Kim was there to add the sobering note that we should be critical thinkers when it comes to how companies and the government are using big data to interact with average citizens. She is a drug safety advocate and co-founder of Woody Matters.
Indeed the film was like a soft glove slap to the face. Many beautiful camera shots, exotic locales and impressive computer graphics combined with interviews with top-of the-field experts gave the impression that this story is going to have a happy ending. The technology of Big Data is amazing and holds so much promise for doing good things in the world.
At the same time one is well aware that there is no human face to Big Data. There is no singular, solitary, unique, individual face. Big Data is all about many faces, the combining of many individuals’ data and finding patterns. If one is looking for one’s own face in big data it can be disorienting. Will a solution generated by analyzing the patterns of many people ever be a perfect fit for each of us as individuals? Is it possible to be led astray by being measured against composite images of ourselves? (This reminds me of how Betty Crocker’s image, the ideal housewife, was a composite of many women, once imagined by artists like Norman Rockwell, now computer generated.)
It perhaps puts new emphasis on our responsibilities as individuals. Think about it. A good starting point is to watch the documentary tonight on TPT2. Then let’s discuss.

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