Before showing up in Star Trek1, the Dyson sphere was a thought experiment.
Physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson wondered what would be the logical consequences of millenia of technological progress on a civilisation. In particular, what tell-tale outward signs would such a civilisation emanate that can be observed from afar?
One defining feature of technological progress is an escalation of energy needs. As we move up the ladder, we typically extract orders of magnitude more energy from the environment. Dyson conjectured that this hunger for ever more energy will never go away.
At a sufficiently advanced stage, a civilisation will come to view its primary source of energy - the star that it orbits (its Sun) - in a new light. Rather than just remaining passive harvesters of the tiny fraction of stellar energy the planet does intercept, its people will use all their know-how to extend their cosmic grasp beyond themselves.
One way they could achieve this is by building a sphere around their star, designed to capture and redirect potentially all of its radiated energy. This is the Dyson sphere2.
Work by later enthusiasts has built upon these initial ideas and refined them - not just to aid and abet the search for extraterrestrial intelligence3, but as a regular prop in sci-fi story-telling4 and also as an indulgence in a shared thought experiment.
There’s the risk that this post is beginning to resemble a Wikipedia page with the barest excuse of a plot, but there’s also more. In 1964, a Soviet astronomer named Nikolai Kardashev proposed a scale to measure the technological advancement of civilisations.
On this scale, a Type I Kardashev civilisation would be one that uses all of the energy impinging on its planet. A Type II, on the other hand, would girdle and harness all the energy of its star, down to the very last drop5. They have splurged on a Dyson sphere.
* * *
Richard Dawkins begins his immortal book6 ‘The Selfish Gene’ by surmising “If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?”7
It’s quite probable that this cosmic IQ test has more than one question and in that case, I would be surprised if “Have they discovered Big Data?” doesn’t figure prominently as well.
Why Big Data? Agreed, it helps businesses to make better decisions, enables public institutions to frame more informed policies and practices, allows science to bypass theories and causation altogether, prods governments to cosplay as Agent Smith8 and enfranchises statistical analysts to hold forth in meetings. But what civilisational pole-vault does Big Data represent?
To put it simply, Big Data represents a quiet backflip on the information equivalent of the Kardashev scale9.
As Big Data thinking seeps into every fold of business, science and governance, we are beginning to make the transition from asking what data impinges on us, to seeking what data can we intercept now and store for later. From seeing data as an incident and often-times helpful feature of our world, to treating it as a raw resource to be fracked out of every nook and search. From lamenting that we have more data than we can ever use, to turning our attention to all the data previously going uncaptured and building apps (and satellites10) to change that.
In other words, we have crossed the metaphorical watershed between contemplating the beauty of a sunset and contemplating the blueprint of a Dyson sphere.
Facebook represents one (but not the only) ambitious and centralised attempt to cloak the world’s population in an information Dyson sphere. Enclosed and interconnected by its very fabric, every quantum of information each one of us ever radiates is to be captured, stored and ultimately harnessed in the service of some decision, sometime and someplace else. None shall be allowed the luxury of impermanence. (Much like its sci-fi and energy counterpart, however, it’s already apparent that successful long-term attempts to do this will more likely be decentralised and loosely co-ordinated11 - not Dyson spheres but Dyson swarms.)
Not to forget, there’s also the non-trivial question of where all this information - this 2.5 quintillion of data created and captured every single day - will reside. What else does this non-fictional Library of Babel12, quietly purring and awaiting the deft touch of data-whisperers, have in store?
Running these massive data centers already consumes around 1.5 percent of the world’s energy resources13. It’s not inconceivable that some time in the near future they may come to consume closer to 20% of our total energy - the very amount of our caloric intake that’s diverted to our brains.