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Philosophy of Big Data: Big Data, the Individual, and Society
Philosophical concepts elucidate the impact the Big Data Era (exabytes/year of scientific, governmental, corporate, personal data being created) is having on our sense of ourselves as individuals in society as information generators in constant dialogue with the pervasive information climate.
What is it?
Heaven or Hell?
“Hi! I'm a Googlebot!
I'm indexing your
Physical world analog
to robots.txt ?
Defining Trend of Current Era: Big Data
Annual data creation in zettabytes (10007 bytes)
90% of the world’s data created in the last 2 years
2 year doubling cycle
Source: Mary Meeker, Internet Trends, http://www.kpcb.com/insights/2013-internet-trends
Big Data Composition
• Massive amounts of data generated daily which
cannot be processed with conventional data
analysis tools (volume, velocity, variety)
– Impossible to store all generated data, 90% real-time
surgical video feeds discarded
• Scientific, governmental, corporate, and personal
– Each generating exabytes/year
– 1990s data management challenge solution: low-cost
storage, massively parallel processing, data warehouses
Typical Big Data Problems
• Perform sentiment analysis on
12 terabytes of daily Tweets
• Predict power consumption
from 350 billion annual meter
• Identify potential fraud in a
business’s 5 million daily
Wireless Internet-of-Things (IOT)
Image credit: Cisco
Source: Swan, M. Sensor Mania! The Internet of Things, Objective Metrics, and the
Quantified Self 2.0. J Sens Actuator Netw (2012) 1(3), 217-253.
12 bn Internet-connected Devices 2016
cars, food, clothing,
3 year doubling cycle
Embedded chips in
5% of humanconstructed objects
1Vinge, V. Who’s Afraid of First Movers? The Singularity Summit 2012
Personal Information Streams
Mobile App Data
Lab Tests: History
Swan, M. Health 2050: The Realization of Personalized Medicine through Crowdsourcing, the
Quantified Self, and the Participatory Biocitizen. J Pers Med 2012, 2(3), 93-118.
• Sense of ourselves as information generators in constant
dialogue with the pervasive information climate
Swan, M. The Quantified Self: Fundamental Disruption in Big Data Science and Biological Discovery.
Big Data June 2013, 1(2): 85-99.
What are Big Data Scientists Saying?
• Jim Harris, Data Science Consultant: beware of
big data fundamentalism; need for data
• Evelyn Rupert, Goldsmith’s London, Economies
and Ecologies of Big Data: (dangerous)
normative relation to data ; no reality, just
representation; data is performative
• Grady Booch, IBM Chief Scientist: human and
ethical aspects, tremendous social benefits,
full life-cycle of data, ineffective legal controls
• James Kobielus, IBM Big Data Evangelist: no
‘single version of the truth’; be critical of
beautiful data visualizations and data-driven
What other kinds of things
is Big Data like?
Big Data: Profound Unknown
• Profound, overwhelming,
• Approaches: how do we deal with
something that is unknown?
• Other vast unknowns
Exploring the ‘new’ world
Sublime vs. Uncanny
• Sublime: loftiness, excellence, inspiration;
sublime is the name given to what is absolutely
great (Critique of Judgment (Kant, 1790))
• Uncanny: beyond normal/expected; plays on
fears (The Uncanny (Sigmund Freud, 1919))
The sublime is a crisis where we realize the
inadequacy of the imagination and reason to each
other (the differend); we are straining the mind at
the edges of itself and its conceptuality
Source: Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (Jean-Francois Lyotard, 1991)
Big Data: Sublime or Uncanny?
Listening Post : Real-Time Data Responsive Environment
(Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, 2001)
Source: The Sublime in Interactive Digital Installation by Tegan Bristow
Is Big Data Different?
Are there ways in which big data is not part of
the natural ongoing process of making our
world more intelligible and manageable
(collect and exploit information)?
Is there something about big data which is
fundamentally different than animal breeding,
the plow, eyeglasses, the airplane,
computing, and the Internet?
Responses to the Big Data Unknown
• Representation, visualization, map (issue of repticity
• Story, narrative, myth
• Understand through opposition
• Borders, limits
– Autoimmunity, Antifragility
• Quantitative approaches
– Data quality
Understand through Opposites
• Opposites (big data vs. small data)
– Possible to have a just world without a notion
(and experience?) of injustice? A world of
equality without inequality?
– Radical forgiveness of even the most
• Interrelations and Dynamism
– Being with one another vs. alterity (Heidegger)
– Fúsis: rising out of itself, taking back into itself
(Heraclitus 500 BCE)
– Plasticity (giving form, taking in form, exploding
form) (Malabou 2012)
Border, Boundaries, Flexibility
• Autoimmunity (Derrida)
– Autoimmunity: porous borders, possibility of selfsuicide, identity cannot be completely closed
– Absolute immunity: nothing would ever happen
• Antifragilility (Taleb)
– Antifragility: systems that are open to mistakes
and learn quickly; resilient and vibrant
– Fragility: over-controlled systems that aim for
stability and avoid change; brittle, weak, and
Subjectivation in Modern Life
• City and subject co-create the modern sensibility
For the Baudelairean flâneur, the city streets
function as transitory stages of modern life.
Modern beauty is not conventional and
pretty, however, but rather discontinuous,
fleeting, bizarre and strange. Differences and
ruptures are its essential traits.
• Data and subject co-create …
Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 1863
Immanence and Transcendence
• Immanence: everything needed for change is within
the system (e.g.; ourselves, society, organism)
• Transcendence: something outside the system is
needed for change
• First give voice to our underlying desires (desiringproduction), our desires (biological and otherwise)
as a productive force - Deleuze & Guatarri (1972)
Living in Harmony: Relation to Others
• Hell is other people – Sartre (1944)
• Desire for recognition; dependence on others for this,
ephemerality; bubble, globe, foam - Sloterdijk (2011)
• Modes of existence – LaTour (2013), Souriau
• Modes of experience, equality techniques - Rancière (2010)
• Group ethics: an honest negotiation between individual
desires (not repression) - Deleuze & Guatarri (1972)
Relation of Individual and Society
• Theme: government surveillance and
diminution of liberty (NSA 2.0)
• Scary/not-scary threshold: anonymous
census (no), internment camps (yes)
• Brin: souveillance (crowd) response to
• Foucault: biopower (top-down) vs.
(the more pernicious) self-disciplinary
• Deleuze: rid ourselves of self-imposed
We are in a world that is fundamentally changing
What is Real?
Is this image of something real? What kind of real?
Real life? Artificial Life? Synthetic Biology? Computergenerated image?
Proliferation in reality categories
Wholly new relation to Information
– Formerly everything signal, now 99% noise
– Exception, variability, probability, patterns, prediction
– New kinds of information
• Longitudinal baseline measures, normal deviation
patterns, contingency adjustments, anomaly, emergence
• Multiple data analysis paradigms: time, frequency,
• New kinds of models (supplementing the scientific method)
– Machine learning, hierarchical representation, neural
networks, information visualization
Source: Swan, M. The Quantified Self. Big Data (2013) 1(2): 85-99.
A New World of Futurity
• Shifting from focus on the past (known) and the
present (measurable) to the future (predictable)
• Increasing importance of math and heuristics
– Statistics: mode, mean, variance, outliers
– Probability: quantum mechanics, semiconductors,
nanomaterials, financial markets, disease risk,
• Systemic, dynamic, episodic, chaotic worldviews
• Collaboration especially drawing upon
Source: Kido, Swan, et al. Systematic evaluation of personal genome services. Nature: Journal of
Human Genetics (2013) 58, 734–741.
Summary: Science and Society
• Big Data as a profound, intangible, pervasive
feature of life requiring novel representation
• Big Data as the inspiration for a new
• New era of scientific discovery with a greatly
formation and sensibility of ourselves as
expanded range of possibilities due to big data,
TechnoBiocitizens in a collaborative society
computation, and big data:participation our
• Philosophy of crowd centrally about
relation to technology
• Our attunement to to technology as an enabling
Our attunement technology as an enabng
background helps us see the possibilities true
background helpsus see the possibilities for thefor the
meaningfulness of our being - Heideg
true meaningfulness of our being - Heidegger
Source: Heidegger, M. The Question Concerning Technology (1954)
Technology Futures Institute
Technology Futures Institute
• Mission: use philosophy to improve the rigor of our
thinking about science and technology
• Sample Projects
– Ethics of Perception in Nanocognition – Perception is a feature
(Glass, electronic contacts, nanorobotic cognitive aids), not an
evolutionary given, therefore how do we want to perceive
– Digital Art and Philosophy – Integration of science/technology,
aesthetics, and meaning-making in complex human endeavor
– A Critical Theory of BioArt – How artists appropriating
biological materials and practices to create art is or is not art
– Conceptualizing Big Data – How big data is remaking our world
– Live Philosophy Workshop – Hands on concept generation
– Strategic Collaborations, Research Papers, Articles
– Speaking engagements, Workshops, Classes, Conferences
– Philosophy Studies: Epistemology1, Subjective Experience2
Philosophy of Big Data:
Big Data, the Individual, and Society
Thank you !
January 24, 2013
Microsoft, Mountain View CA