Fortunately, there are countervailing forces within the enterprise. IT departments, threatened by the predations of data storage costs on their budgets (and the resultant brakes on innovation and development) are as eager to take out the trash as in-house general counsel are to let the refuse just pile up. Nor did enterprising CIO’s climb the corporate ladder for the purpose of becoming graveyard caretakers. And yet a recent McKinsey & Company report (‘Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity’, May 2011) projects 40% growth in global data generation per annum versus 5% growth in global IT spending. With fewer allocable dollars contending with explosive and unabated data generation, Big Data risks becoming the dumpster that ate The Next Big Thing. How will innovation maintain a place at the IT table? Slowly, senior management is coming to realize their security blanket is really an anvil in disguise. The fact is Big Data threatens to be a major job and productivity killer. With more bytes and less people, the machine wins again. Frankly, how many more battles can We the People afford to lose?
Even today, only 2% of all existent human data is on the Internet. Oh good, only 98% more to plow through! Rilke would be struck by the frivolity of the task, indexing the totality of (ever-expanding) human data, tantamount one suspects to moving every grain of sand on every beach from the left side of the beach to the right side and vice versa. Suppose Sisyphus managed just once to tip his boulder over the crest of the hill. Would it not just careen into a meta-valley on the other side? How is our wisdom, our knowledge enhanced by the reptilian impulse to catalog everything under the sun or as Sven Birkerts characterizes the replicative meaninglessness of the so-called ‘digital path’, to invent:
“…a parallel realm…[that] would move us away by building a new world, with new human rules, and placing it squarely atop the old.”—from ‘The Room and the Elephant’ by Sven Birkerts (Los Angeles Review of Books, June 7, 2011
Should the day ever arrive (it would have to be at the end of history) when the universe becomes fully indexed on the Internet, does the Internet not become the universe or at the least a parallel meta-universe? What will we do then? Re-roll our boulders to their originating valleys? Admit the inevitable and collapse our souls into avatars? Who will conduct the first-order, up-close reconnoiter, what Emerson, anticipating Rilke describes as, “…the poet nam[ing] the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other.” Metadata names names, making it at least one step removed from the poet’s sacred project. Our transformative energies are wasted on filing chores, relegating us to glorified machine-language adjuncts. Steve Lohr looks ahead to this very prospect:
“Decisions of all kinds, [Big Data experts] say, will increasingly be made on the basis of data and analysis rather than experience and intuition — more science and less gut feel…what psychologists call ‘anchoring bias.’” –from ‘Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet’, by Steve Lohr, The New York Times, June 19, 2013
Anchoring bias sounds a lot like poetic voice, that woefully inadequate yet durable nemesis of analytics everywhere, the human soul. The impending Big Data train-wreck cries out for a deeper reckoning to which we must rally our poet-technologists, all five of them. If we would only self-listen with proper gnostic intensity our data footprints would collapse like the nervous babel they mostly are. Big Data is the shadow-form of all we could not bring ourselves to reflect upon. Intuition will not be indexed. Therein lies its value. Intuitives risk being hunted to extinction by the NSA State. If you cannot tweet it, it will not exist, an assault on Rilkean consciousness Patriot Act IV will surely codify. The apotheosis of P. K. Dick’s black iron prison (and Bentham’s Panopticon) is the Internet in its late-stage authoritarian form. Even Hammerbacher asks rhetorically if belatedly “What does it mean to live in an era where things and people are infinitely observed?” Thank you, Mr. Hammerbacher, for tossing circumspection on the pyre of scientific advance. But then, scientists are famous for plunging ahead leaving others to look like ridiculously out-of-step Luddites. Allow me to dig my heels in first: If the wonders of Hiroshima have taught us anything, it is that the huge potential of Big Data will be met with a mushroom cloud of compensatory magnitude. Thus it is precisely the breathless claims of Big Data analytics that have me shaking in my boots. We must relight the early Christian catacombs somewhere off the grid as the soul is being driven underground once again.
I’m prompted as well to offer an updated definition of that cagey yet ineradicable word ‘soul’ as being the human region which proves resistant to data collection and surveillance, not because we erect a killer (and thus someday, ‘with the right technology’, surmountable) firewall; but because there is something within the very fabric of soul that is antithetical to data collection and looms one eternal one step beyond Hammerbacher’s ‘infinite’ field of observation. The proof for soul? That Sisyphus’ punishment is so incomprehensible in magnitude and scale no data silo can ever hope to contain it in the shuttered language of binaries. Capture is impossible. Only poetry can evoke it. The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the soul proves to be but a billion points of convergent data, we will brush through the trans-human era on the way to machine-hegemony and human extinction. There’s an entire human movement working earnestly towards this capitulation called Singularitarianism—how traitorous, how charming. Absent this forever vouchsafed realm, the poetic project collapses like a metaphysical hoax perpetrated against the centuries. As goes poetry, so goes the soul. Historic man cannot be so far behind.
In the meantime, we are high-tech beasts of burden dragging stones towards a Great Collective Pyramid of Cyber. Had we realized the Digital Revolution would enlist us in a massive water-carrying project instead of emancipating us to pursue a Greater Meaning (the manna-headstone of information), we might never have picked up those damned Blackberry’s in the first place. Now we’re hooked. But please, just hold that thought. Don’t type it.