For each of the 12 days of Christmas, here’s something to beguile, distract – and leave you with questions for the year ahead
The world is awash in Big Data: 90 per cent of the world’s data was created in the last two years, partly thanks to our love of exchanging photos, messages and videos. The new Big Bang Data exhibition in London sets out to explore the implications of this: as a large yellow placard at the start declares, data could help build a society that is “more fair, stable and efficient” but could also be “wielded as a means of unprecedented mass surveillance”.
As ever, technology offers roads to both heaven and hell.
Beyond the entrance, a warren of spaces beckons, full of video screens, giant maps, data visualisations and artworks. Two hours later, at the exit, I have no answers to the big questions posed at the start, but a head filled with points of departure. Three things remain on my mind.
I had somehow managed to forgetthat the US government tracks the emails, purchases, text messages, locations and phone calls of people all over the world.
A powerful reminder came from William Binney, one of the first whistle-blowers to revealwhat the US National Security Agency is up to. Binney, who appears in a video interview, is not a young idealist like Snowden, but a veteran with 32 years of experience at the NSA, spying on the Soviet Union.
He looks out at us with a pained expression, saying: “After 9/11 they took one of the programs I had done and started to use it to spy on everyone in this country.” Thanks in part to his labours, for which he apologises, the NSA can pull together a timeline of everything you do. “This is something the KGB, the Gestapo or the Stasi would have loved to have had,” he says. “As a democracy we need to say, do we want our government doing this… It can’t all be done in secret….”
Or perhaps it can.
Binney may be reasonable, but the debate on electronic surveillance and the right to encrypt private communication is less so. Former CIA chief James Woolsey recentlythat he would prefer to see Snowden “hanged by the neck until he is dead rather than merely electrocuted”. In the UK, Sir David Omand, former director of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has been more balanced in “ ” in recognising needs for individual privacy.
Snowden says: “My greatest fear is that people will learn all this and do nothing.” Despite the seriousness of the issue, I learned from the artists’ works on show at the exhibition that you can both do something and entertain.
My favourite was Owen Mundy’s, which takes a million pictures of cats posted online and maps where they live, providing a powerful but light-hearted picture of how much the web can reveal.
To raise my own motivation, I bought the grippingby Glenn Greenwald from the venue’s bookshop.
The exhibition tells you not to be fooled by the “deceptive metaphor” of “the cloud”, because the reality is far more wonderful than it sounds. As you tap on your smartphone, light-speed messages make a server blink across the other side of the world. Many server farms are in the US, some in the Arctic to better cope with the terrible heat they create, some hidden in old nuclear bunkers, and a few are now in sparkling new architecture which celebrates what they are.
The exhibition’s pictures of these farms make what is mainly invisible visible, and teaches you how to read manhole covers and wall markings for internet cabling so that you too can see the physical behind the virtual. This is where you marvel at technology rather than debate what it does. To see further, the bookshop providesby Andrew Blum.
Many hope that big data will create transparent bureaucracies and genuinely participatory government. Perhaps the most ambitious of these dreams is set out in a video about digital activist Brewster Kahle, founder of the, who dreams of universal access to all knowledge. As his colleague Alexis Rossi puts it: “We know how to get all the information out of every book ever written… every television program that is broadcast… The question is whether we have the will.”
It is a seductive dream, and if I wasn’t readingby Kentaro Toyama, I’d probably be equally enthused. I massively support the idea in principle, but as Toyama explains, in the real world one good human mentor is worth a million free books. Technology provides no simple answers.
Leaving the exhibition, I feel the power of data: simultaneously frightening, wondrous and potentially empowering.
, an exhibition at Somerset House, London, runs until 28 February 2016
Image credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Corbis artist: Robert Indiana
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