Big Data and Bombs on Fifth Avenue

Big Data, No Thanks

James Bridle has posted a lightly edited version of the excellent presentation he gave to “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto last month – Big Data, No Thanks – at his blog booktwo.  It’s an artful mix of text and images and, as always with James, both repay close scrutiny.

If you look at the situation we are in now, a couple of years after the Snowden revelations, most if not all of the activities which they uncovered have been, if not secretly authorised already, signed into law and continued without much fuss.

As Trevor Paglen has said: Wikileaks and the NSA have essentially the same political position: there are dark secrets at the heart of the world, and if we can only bring them to light, everything will magically be made better. One legitimises the other. Transparency is not enough – and certainly not when it operates in only one direction.  This process has also made me question my own practice and that of many others, because making the invisible visible is not enough either.

James talks about the ‘existential dread’ he feels caused not ‘by the shadow of the bomb, but by the shadow of data’:

It’s easy to feel, looking back, that we spent the 20th Century living in a minefield, and I think we’re still living in a minefield now, one where critical public health infrastructure runs on insecure public phone networks, financial markets rely on vulnerable, decades-old computer systems, and everything from mortgage applications to lethal weapons systems are governed by inscrutable and unaccountable softwares. This structural and existential threat, which is both to our individual liberty and our collective society, is largely concealed from us by commercial and political interests, and nuclear history is a good primer in how that has been standard practice for quite some time.

newyorker-720-loIt’s a much richer argument than these snippets can convey.  For me, the high spot comes when James talks about IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (really), which turns out to be the most explosive combination of secrecy and visibility that you could possibly imagine.

I’m not going to spoil it – go and read it for yourself, and then the title of this post will make horrible sense.  You can read more in George Dyson‘s absorbingly intricate account of Turing’s Cathedral: the origins of the digital universe (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2012).

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