Jul 9, 2013

What Big Data reveals about us as a civilisation

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.

When that happens, things could get interesting. We may end up with an experiment in thought¹⁴.

Reference and Notes:
1. A full Dyson sphere is featured in the Relics episode of Star Trek : The Next Generation (Dyson spheres in popular culture)
2. You can read more about the Dyson sphere at its Wikipedia page.
3. As it so happens, Dyson spheres are actually difficult to distinguish from natural astronomical objects, like heavy dust clouds of birthing or dying stars, that may radiate similar signatures (Signs of Life). However, the search continues (Dyson sphere searches).
4. This Wikipedia page (Dyson spheres in popular culture) keeps track of all occurrences of Dyson spheres in fictional worlds.
5. A Type III Kardashev civilisation is also in the scale - this is one that harnesses all the energy of its galaxy (Kardashev Scale).
6. ‘The Selfish Gene’ is indeed one of my all-time favourite books but this is just a sly reference to the title Richard Dawkins now wishes he had given the book (The Immortal Gene), considering the misunderstandings the original title has led to (The Selfish Gene).
7. Chapter 1, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
8. The antagonist of The Matrix trilogy.
9. I am unaware if such a scale has been already conjectured. But if not, I propose the name Ovshinsky scale, for Stanford Ovshinsky, who recognised that “information really is encoded energy” (Interview ith Stanford Ovshinsky).
10. Wired 21.07 has a fascinating piece on a startup which is launching a fleet of cheap, small and ultra-efficient satellites that send back up-to-minute hi-res pictures of all of the earth, which could change the way we measure the economic health of countries, industries and, even individual businesses. (The Watchers)
11. Jeff Stibel makes a compelling case why Facebook’s is set on the path to implosion rather than unrestrained growth. (Is Facebook Too Big To Survive)
12. ‘La Biblioteca de Babel’ is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges in which there exists a library containing all possible books, covering every possible ordering of alphabets (The Library of Babel). Much of the content of the library is gibberish leading its users to suicidal despair, but contained within its vastness are also untold and unimaginable treasures - like translations of all books in all languages.
13. Statistic from Google Throws Open Doors To Its Top Secret Data Center.
14. In Wired 13.08: We Are The Web, Kevin Kelly writes “This planet-sized computer is comparable in complexity to a human brain. Both the brain and the Web have hundreds of billions of neurons (or Web pages). Each biological neuron sprouts synaptic links to thousands of other neurons, while each Web page branches into dozens of hyperlinks. That adds up to a trillion "synapses" between the static pages on the Web. The human brain has about 100 times that number - but brains are not doubling in size every few years. The Machine is.”
My own conjecture here is that it might not be the total number of neurons, or connections, that could emerge as a threshold for the singularity moment, but the amount of energy the global mind draws from the world’s energy resources. It's one good reason why the global mind might convince us to build (it) a Dyson sphere.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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