It’s a good time to be a UXer. We’ve got more tools that ever before to look at how users are engaging with our digital properties in order to make them better. The information and tools used to gather and analyze this data are collectively known as Big Data. It’s what helps Netflix figure out what movies you want to watch. It’s Google Now giving you your daily To Do list. It’s the technology that underpins digital personalization features. And we’re just getting started.
Big Data is possible because we’ve developed tools and techniques to deal with vast arrays of data.
How much data exactly? To quote the CIA’s chief technology officer Gus Hunt, “we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever“.
Big Data is so big that it has the capacity to vacuum up all of our entire digital trails to store them for later use. The implications for this are staggering. So much so that it’s slowing dawning on us that the fundamental nature of what it means to be human is changing.
There’s a precedent for this shift in what it means to be human. To go there one must look back into antiquity to when hunter-gatherers were making the transition to farming.
As you can imagine, there’s no data on when the first farm was created. Nobody knows what was planted or what crops it yielded. But what we can say for certain is that it was the single most disruptive piece of technology that humanity, as it existed, had encountered to that point. Why do we know that? Because it’s in man’s origin story in the Bible, a small book that you might have heard of before.
The story of the Garden of Eden, if you’ve never heard it, goes like this: After God creates the Earth and populates it he decides to make man. God makes Adam first, then makes Eve from Adam’s rib bone. They spend their days in the Garden eating whatever they wish, naming animals, being naked, and generally having a Heaven on Earth experience. God, who visits the garden and talks to Adam and Eve directly tells them that the only thing off limits is this one tree called the Tree of Knowledge. All Adam and Eve have to do is steer clear of the tree and everything is fine. Eat from it, and they “will die”. (Genesis 3:3)
God introducing Eve to Adam.
To the snake, he made it the lowest of the low, the mortal enemy of humans and their destiny is to be crushed by humans. To the woman he made child birth hard and made it so men would rule over them. To the man, he made it hard to farm.
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
What God is saying is that the days of hunting and gathering as a lifestyle were over. Now man was going to have to work the earth if they wanted to eat and it was going to be hard and dirty. What was easy for man, finding sustenance, will now have to be earned with the sweat of his brow.
This was not an easy transition. It was so difficult, in fact, that the pain felt by man was recorded as happening as a result of disobeying a direct order by God. Is there anything worse one can do that disobey God? And so an equal punishment was needed. That punishment was farming.
That’s how humanity records this period of time: a horrible punishment inflicted by God upon Man.
Why was this seen as divine punishment? Well for one thing, we were terrible at it. What happened to the Garden of Eden is the same thing that happened to the bread basket in the US in the 1930s. Bad farming methods eroded all of the topsoil which changed the landscape and ecosystem. It went from a lush green paradise to a dusty wasteland. Plants and trees died. Animals moved away. Food became harder to come by and was dependent on man’s skill to tease it from the soil. Life got much, much harder.
Moving from a hunter-gatherer existence to one based on farming had profound effects. It made nomads settle down and stay in one area. It increased the importance of land ownership, since some land was better for farming than others. It introduced beer into the human diet. It allowed for larger populations and created a class of people that didn’t have to work to find food everyday. In short, it completely changed what it meant to be human.
The next fantastic change came with the invention of writing. Writing is the single feature that defines us separately from all other species. Some would say I’m overreaching, or that the truly Ur event was the invention of language, but just follow me here. What makes writing so important is that one person can now learn something, write it down, and another person can learn from that writing without actually having to do the original labor to learn that fact.
No other animal does this. Even the other smartest animals on earth: elephants, dolphins, gorillas, and chimps can’t pass along knowledge several generations down the line. When those animals die, they take everything they’ve ever learned with them. Consequently, there’s almost no collective learning. A rat running in the sewers of NYC today can’t provide a map of the subway to future generations of rats. Each has to learn on their own.
This is not true with us humans. Since the invention of writing, we’ve been able to harness the power of collective learning. This power is so great that, for example, Euclid, who lived in 300 BC wrote a math book, Elements that was so comprehensive that it was used as a primary textbook until the last 100 years. That’s 2,000 years of students learning math from the same book. All of them were able to gain Euclid’s insights into mathematics rather than having to discover it for themselves.
Of course, it wasn’t until sometime after 1,439 AD – the year Gutenberg started messing with movable type in Europe – that this text became widely available.
The printing press therefore is the second major advance in writing. With its invention, thoughts written down on paper could be easily and cheaply distributed. This allowed for more ideas to travel farther and to remain around longer.
Fast-forward to the days of the Internet. We’re familiar with the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. Web 1.0 is what the Internet looked like in the year 2,000. People were putting all manner of things online but it was still a one-to-many relationship. In 2003, the “social web” became a thing and the Web 2.0 was born. The traditional top-down method of communication was now joined by a many-to-many variety practically unseen before in all of human history. The principles of Web 2.0 were adopted so rapidly that it’s almost impossible to imagine an Internet before you could easily “share” things or before normal people could become famous for doing something on the Internet that went viral.
The Web 3.0 came about when the Social Web gained its Big Data component. This is the game changer.
There can be no doubt that the Internet and the social web have already incredibly impacted human culture. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the transition from hunter-gatherer to farming. I believe that Big Data will change all of that.
The story of the Garden of Eden is one of hunter-gatherers having to convert to farming. But it’s also a story of Man deciding that he was going to be God’s equal.
Big Data is Man’s attempt at proving it.
We’ve entered a period of human development where being fully human means having access to the Internet. Essentially, if you don’t have a smart phone, there’s no way you can keep up. With the Internet and Big Data, we have the ability to do things that were previously the exclusive provenance of the gods. We can go to anywhere on earth (as long as there’s Internet) and show up at the exact place we want because of Google Maps. We can speak any language with real time translation apps. We can pay for goods and services. We can talk to anybody, at anytime, anywhere. We have the entire world’s knowledge at our disposal and sorted for our ease of use in a instant in our pocket. And that’s just scratching the surface.
These abilities are ours because of our ability to parse vast quantities of data in an instant. This is Big Data.
Big Data also has a nefarious side. Like God, Big Data is a digital Mordor: all seeing, and all watching. This is a feature of Big Data – a necessity, rather than planned malevolence. In order to provide such features as the ability to turn your TV on with your voice (like the Xbox One will be capable of upon its release in November), a microphone must be on and listening all the time. In order for Netflix to give you quality recommendations, they need to know what other movies you’ve watched and what you thought of them. For each way that a computer makes your life easier by customizing itself to your needs, it requires knowledge about you in return.
And all of this data – all of it – for practical purposes is collected by just a few main companies. And as Edward Snowden showed, the government.
This is the beginning of data farming.
Really, it was inevitable. As inevitable as farming was to hunting and gathering anyway. For thousands of years, humans did just fine living in this more technologically primal state but a need arose that necessitated farming.
Similarly, we’ve been doing just fine with our writings on clay tablets, papyrus, paper, or whatever else we could get our hands on. If you’ve ever needed to hunt down a college transcript, or find a bill in a stack of papers, or have ever looked at a map, you’ve had the experience of hunting and gathering information. Big Data shifts the burden to technology. Now practically all of your information is available at your fingertips.
And if not your fingertips, it’s certainly available to somebody else.
When I was a kid I learned two similar phrases: Knowledge is power and knowing is half the battle. Reflecting back to the Garden of Eden – the only thing God wanted man to steer clear of was the Tree of Knowledge. Knowledge is the ultimate power.
This is what the NSA is banking on when it vacuums up everybody’s data. By tending and managing that data with computer learning algorithms there’s no end to what could be done with that information. But as an idea, in major US cities, there are now police units whose job it is to predict crime before it happens. You might also notice this as the plot of the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie Minority Report.
With Big Data, Man finally gains true God-like powers. I mean, sure, it’s cool to be able to find a good bar in a city you’ve never been to before without asking anybody directly but it’s way cooler to predict the future before it happens. Something that we’re totally doing, by the way. It turns out, for example, that Twitter is a reliable predictor 3 to 4 days in advance of the whether the stock market will go up or down. It can also predict things like economic collapse, government collapse, and where epidemics will break out. (And also that apparently the new Lone Ranger movie in theaters this week would be a huge flop.)
But as with the cool god-like superpowers that Big Data gives us, it also rewards those that have the most information with the most power. Hence the whole NSA spying thing.
The question, “Who watches the watchers” has never been more relevant. Big Data has the ability to make sense of our invisible data trail. It has the ability to sort our comings and goings, our musings and rants, our purchases, friends, and life decisions and draw a very intimate portrait of who we all are. And it never has to let that information go. After all, nowhere in the law does it say we have a right to be forgotten.
Already we’re adapting to this new reality. In a Pew Research Report, reported on by the BBC, they discovered that 58% of American teenagers use phrases with hidden meanings on social media. For example, something bad happens to somebody they don’t like. Rather than gloat about it on Facebook, the teen instead posts a song lyrics whose meaning is only clear to his friends in the know. Essentially, teens are giving up on controlling access to content and instead are controlling access to meaning.
Where this is all going and what this world will look like in 30 years is anybody’s guess. A pessimist would say that it will look like global tyranny. An optimist would say that it will look like global harmony. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. But one thing is for sure. Big Data will certainly change what it means to be human. We are all ordinary gods now.