The Binary Enlightenment
September 8, 2014
Being quite interested in mobile technology*, I follow the tech press constantly. And this past week, Berlin hosted one of the year's largest conferences for mobile technology, IFA 2014, or Internationale Funkausstellung. IFA, at least in the realm of mobile computing, is where large companies like Samsung and Sony unveil their latest and greatest products. Usually, these are smartphones and tablets. But this year, there's been a growing focus on wearable technology, ubiquitous internet, and the Internet of Things. Combined, these will enable us to have our technology conform to our lifestyle; wearable technology in the form of heads-up displays (Google Glass comes to mind) and smartwatches bring information to us in ever more accessible forms without us having to lift a finger, and the Internet of Things will have our household appliances from lamps and refrigerators to door locks and laundry machines run on their own, using algorithms that determine the best times do perform tasks for us. In a way, it won't be long until the sci-fi dreams of robots performing our actions for us is realized. But in fact, it's something much greater, because those sci-fi writers didn't know the potential that a connected world would bring. It won't just be individual robots working for us, it'll be the entire internet becoming the servants of the four billion connected souls on Earth.
But for this to be possible at all, the internet needs to know more than ever about everything. Everything, that is, including your every move. It'll take your health information and synthesize it with your location history, your age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and search history to provide a perfectly individualized dietary advice. It'll sift through your emails, compare it with the airline data worldwide and your calendar events, as well as your location and locations of others around you to provide traffic information right before you have to leave to make it on time. And it'll use your browsing history, your search history and click-through data, your buying habits, your music library, and your online purchases to make a shopping list and a wish list specifically crafted to fit your every need and every wish. In fact, it's already happening. Amazon and Google take your search history to selectively choose what products and ads you see the most; Google Now reads your emails, if you so choose, to provide shipping and airline information when they're needed; and countless health apps synthesize a multitude of statistics to offer you health data and advice. So naturally, the apparent question is: is the information worth the sacrifice of privacy? And yes, this question is becoming increasingly relevant as stories of events invading privacy pop up constantly. However, I think this isn't a matter of whether or not everyone should give up their data -- some will choose to, and some won't, just as some choose to hang on to their feature phones, what some will argue is the technology of yeteryears. I, for one, don't really care if Google or Apple knows everything about me**, because I don't mind, and the benefits, to me, are much much greater than the slight loss. But honestely, that's a matter of personal choice, not a global, all-or-nothing policy. So disregarding the question of whether or not we give the Internet information, we can arrive at what I think is a much bigger question with higher stakes and higher potentials. That is, if we have such an intricate, detailed, and broad set of data and the ability to analyze them for literally any and every pattern at such great speeds, what can we do to make something of those data points, besides making the wealthy and privileged reap the benefits of technology for convenience?
For one, there are already a lot of use cases for utilizing the power of Big Data. Google Now, for example, uses all the information Google has about you to provide information exactly when you need it - everything from today's weather and agenda in the morning to changes in traffic condition and airlines, from automatically tracking shipments to alerting you about the news stories you'd like. Waze uses real-time traffic data from people on the road to construct a digital map of the traffic information of the roads. Google Translate uses cross-comparisons of millions of books, publications, and websites in multiple languages to enhance its ability.
Furthermore, using Big Data can enhance more than our digital, connected experiences. There are instances where cities take information gathered through the internet about its population and how people travel, and apply it in city planning and renovation projects to optimize travel times for the most people. There are also countless instances where using data collected in similar ways has greatly decreased the rate of crime, violence, and abuse in certain parts of cities. So in this way, taking advantage of these new ways of collecting data can lead to amazingly accurate "weather forecast" for virtually any variable worth measuring in our society, and that in itself is a powerful tool for developing communities.
So history is doomed to repeat itself, and there's no avoiding the truth. However, utilizing the power of the connected world to more intelligently prepare for it is a large leap in the right direction.
There is a concept in the information industry called the DIKW Pyramid, or the Data - Information - Knowledge - Wisdom pyramid. The main idea is that organized data lends itself to information; organized information lends itself to knowledge; and carefully analyzed and synthesized knowledge lends itself, ultimately, to wisdom. In other words, as our collective global society dives face first into the coming age of infinite data at our fingertips, it is more important than ever before to see the potential of using it to its potential, to find out more about the world around us and, more importantly, about who we are.
* "Mobile Technology" meaning smartphones, tablets, hybrids, and now smartwatches.