Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Drowning by numbers: how to survive the information age

2002 was a big year. According to some statistics, it was the year that digital storage capacity overtook analogue: books gave way to online information; binary became king. Or hyperbole to that effect. Between email, social media, websites and the interminable selfie, we are all guilty to greater or lesser extent of creating data archived in digital format. The human race now generates zettabytes of data every year (a zettabyte being a trillion gigabytes, in case you're still dealing in such minute amounts of data).

So what's so bad about that? More and more we rely on syntheses of information in order to keep up with the exponential amount of knowledge revealed to our species by the scientific and other methods. Counter to Plato's 2400 year-old dialogue Phaedrus, we can no longer work out everything important for ourselves; instead, we must rely on analysis and results created by other, often long-dead, humans. Even those with superb memories cannot retain more than a miniscule fraction of the information known about even one discipline. In addition, we can now create data-rich types of content undreamed of in Plato's time. Some, MRSI medical scans being an ad-hoc example , may require long-term storage. If quantum computing becomes mainstream, then that will presumably generate an exponential growth in data.

What then, are the primary concerns of living in a society that has such high demands for the creation and safe storage of data? I've been thinking about this for a while now and the following is my analysis of the situation.

1. Storage. In recent years it has become widely known that CDs and to a lesser extent DVDs are subject to several forms of disk rot. I've heard horror stories of people putting their entire photo and/or video collection onto portable hard drives, only for these to fail within a year or two, the data being irrevocably lost. With the advent of cloud storage, this lessens the issue, but not completely. Servers are still subject to all sorts of problems, with even enterprise-level solutions suffering due to insufficient disaster recovery and resilience (to use terms us web developers use). I'm not saying audio tapes, vinyl records and VHS were any better, far from it, but there is a lot less data stored in these formats. There are times when good old-fashioned paper still rules - as it still does in the legal and compliance sectors I've had contact with.

2. Security and privacy. As for safety, the arms race against hackers, etal, is well and truly engaged. Incompetence also has its place. When living in the UK I once received a letter stating that my children's social services records, including their contact details, had become publicly available. This turned out to be due to loss of a memory stick containing database passwords. As for identify theft, well, let's just say that Facebook is a rude word. I managed to track down an old friend after nearly twenty years' incommunicado, finding details such as his address, wife's name and occupation, etc, mostly via Facebook, in less than half an hour. Lucky I'm not a stalker, really!

Even those who avoid social media may find themselves with some form of internet presence. I had a friend who signed a political petition on paper and then several years' later found his name on a petition website. Let's hope it was the sort of campaign that didn't work against his career - these things can happen.

And then there's the fact that being a consumer means numerous manufacturers and retail outlets will have your personal details on file. I've heard that in some countries if you - and more particularly your smartphone - enter a shopping mall, you may get a message saying that as a loyal customer of a particular store there is a special sale on just for you, the crunch being that you only have a limited time, possibly minutes, to get to the outlet and make a purchase. Okay, that doesn't sound so bad, but the more storage locations that contain your personal details, the greater the chance they will be used against you. Paranoid? No, just careful. Considering how easy it was for me to become a victim of financial fraud about fifteen years ago, I have experience of these things.

As any Amazon customer knows, you are bombarded with offers tailored via your purchase record. How long will it be before smart advertising billboards recognise your presence, as per Steven Spielberg's Minority Report? Yes, the merchandiser's dream of ultimate granularity in customer targeting, but also a fundamental infringement of their anonymity. Perhaps everyone will end up getting five seconds' of public fame on a daily basis, thanks to such devices. Big Brother is truly watching you, even if most of the time it's for the purpose of flogging you consumer junk.

3. Efficiency. There are several million blog posts each day, several hundred billion emails and half a billion daily tweets. How can we possibly extract the wheat from the chaff (showing my age with that idiom), if we spend so much time ploughing through social media? I, for one, am not convinced there's much worth in a lot of this new-fangled stuff anyway (insert smiley here). I really don't want to know what friends, relatives or celebrities had for breakfast or which humorous cat videos they've just watched. Of course it's subjective, but I think there's a good case for claiming the vast majority of digital content is a complete load of rubbish. So how can we live useful, worthwhile or even fulfilled lives when surrounded by it? In other words, how do we find the little gems of genuine worth among the flood of noise? It seems highly probable that a lot of the prominent nonsense theories such as moon landing hoax wouldn't be anywhere near as popular if it wasn't for the World Wide Web disseminating them.

4. Fatigue and overload. Research has shown that our contemporary news culture (short snippets repeated ad nauseum over the course of a day or so) leads to a weary attitude. Far from empowering us, bombarding everyone with the same information, frequently lacking context, can rapidly lead to antipathy. Besides which, if information is inaccurate in the first place it can quickly achieve canonical status as it gets spread across the digital world. As for the effect all this audio-visual over-stimulation is having on children's attention where was I?

5. The future. So are there any solutions to these issues? I assume as we speak there are research projects aiming to develop heuristic programs that are the electronic equivalent of a personal assistant. If a user carefully builds their personality profile, then the program would be expected to extract nuggets of digital gold from all the sludge. Yet even personally-tailored smart filters that provide daily doses of information, entertainment, commerce and all points in between have their own issues. For example, unless the software is exceptional (i.e. rather more advanced than anything commercially available today) you would probably miss out on laterally- or tangentially-associated content. Even for scientists, this sort of serendipity is a great boon to creativity, but is rarely found in any form of machine intelligence. There's also the risk that corporate or governmental forces could bias the programming…or is that just the paranoia returning? All I can say: knowledge is power.

All in all, this sounds a touch pessimistic. I think Arthur C. Clarke once raised his concern about the inevitable decay within societies that overproduced information. The digital age is centered on the dissemination of content that is both current and popular, but not necessarily optimal. We are assailed by numerous sources of data, often created for purely commercial purposes; rarely for anything of worth. Let's hope we don't end up drowning in videos of pesky kittens. Aw, aren't they cute, though?