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As I watched the PBS program titled “The Human Face of Big Data,” I was mesmerized. The gigantic torrent of data now available to computer software can be transformed into colorful visual representations of much that was invisible before. For example, one man created a map that revealed his toddler creating a concept for the word “water.” (Spoiler alert: the key lay in multiple contexts.) In another example, behavioral data now collected from biological mapping devices—such as wrist-wear data managers—can predict the onset of depression days ahead of previous diagnoses or infection before it’s observable in premature babies.
I had never seen data maps before, and at first, they looked like useless fun or dangerous Big Brother surveillance. I’m not comfortable with being transparent on digital media—as everyone who uses digital media is. Everything we ask or post becomes permanently available to anyone—corporate, governmental, or even personal—who knows how to extract the information. When I go online shopping, I’m creeped-out when the business immediately greets me with “Hello, Susan. Here are bargains that might interest you.” Did I give you permission to call me Susan? If I buy or search for something weird as a gift for a friend, do you automatically record that I have that interest?
The analysts describe our digital universe as a “planetary nervous system.” Each of us is a mere blip in the sea of information “out there.” If we’re participating in the modern world, we can’t hide. I recently Googled the name of a sick relative, looking for a Yellow Pages-style address I could use to send a cheerful card. I received not only several versions of the address, but also data about his family and even my mother’s obituary—all on the first page without any further searches. What? Mapping the searches people do online tells the CDC (Center for Disease Control) where flu is breaking out long before the medical community is aware of the outbreak. Being part of a planetary nervous system makes me feel like an insignificant red blood cell in the body of Mankind, and maybe that’s not far from the truth.
Data mapping isn’t magic, but the scope is so miniscule and enormous at the same time that patterns become apparent that were hidden before. I’m not at all sure what we need to do to prevent ourselves from being controlled (I think that’s a question we need to ponder!), but I can’t help questioning what we could learn about invisible topics that might lend themselves to this new kind of research. We know many so-called “paranormal” topics have been academic poison for centuries, because they aren’t easy to examine scientifically. Will this new method give us a way to see what wasn’t apparent? For example, what could we discover by mapping reported instances of extrasensory perception? Or reincarnation? Or UFOs? Are there data tracks that might illustrate or disprove claims? I have to wonder…