The Aesthetic of Big Data (1)

There is a zombie email address that I use for nonessential site registrations to avoid aggressive marketing strategies. But a few months into using this email address I noticed that they began ‘customising’ my login page with inane fashion news of Kate and Gaga. No doubt this was the work of an algorithm programme gone wasted on an individual. But there are millions of other active users out there whose every Google search, every click on a link, and every private communication or transaction is recorded and fed into all sorts of algorithms, which in turn generate information to dictate the behaviours of the real owner behind them.

Click on the thumbnail to view infographic by Asigra

Click on the thumbnail to view infographic by Asigra

Intelligent Life recently carries a typically humanistic article about how the trend of big data is turning us into slaves to the algorithm. Citing many examples of how a successful data crunching firm helps businesses from F1 teams to movie makers come up with critical decisions, the anonymous author nonetheless questions the claim of universality by this new application of an old art. I say an ‘art’ because it is in fact a set of rules that follows the most basic logical steps, which founds the principles of mathematics,[1] and mathematics was considered an art in the glorious medieval days.

In fact, this author is not alone in doubting the power of big data. Communication scholars from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have warned that Google’s search recommendations actually bend people’s perception. Not many people out there are fortunate enough to escape the constant bombardment of carefully calculated but mindless information, suggestions, advertisements and what not. Many honest internet users at most have only one to two personal email accounts that they use on a daily basis. I belong to this negligible minority that contributes to the 0.01% of deviation in the pool of big data, and in the world where size matters, my opinions do not.

That is what an expert told me as the ‘macro’ level of big data, on which eccentric individual’s opinions do not even register on the radar. Macro big data has its eye on the epic and the heroic; it seeks to shake the world and move the mountains. So let’s not debate whether this game of aggregation and algorithm is world-changing. The world is changing. But big data also influence us on a ‘micro’ scale. It masquerades as customisation, as enhancing individuality and heterogeneity by offering us tailored suggestions.

But seriously? The numbers know us better than we do ourselves? They know before we know what we want to read, what we should buy, what we shall eat, and to the extreme – whom we should date? Using aggregate data of birthdays and personality traits, charlatan astronomers even tell us who we are. It is clear that if we humans still want to hold on to the self-crowned leadership of the world, we’d better start really taking things in hand before they spin out of control. The truth is, algorithm is a human invention, and we cannot let our invention dictate our own lives, small as they are.

In the next post, I shall discuss the fetish of big data in the aesthetic of posthumanism, and its difficult relationship with memories, knowledge and self-love.


[1] ‘Mathematics is a method of logic.’ Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus, 6.234.

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