Borders and Big Data

Borders_Fig1

Fig 1 – Big Data Analytics is a lens, the data is a side effect of new media

I was reflecting on borders recently, possibly because of reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy. Borders come up fairly often in mapping:

  • Geography – national political borders, administrative borders
  • Cartography – border line styles, areal demarcation
  • Web Maps – pixel borders bounding polygonal event handlers
  • GIS – edges between nodes defining faces
  • Spatial DBs – Dimensionally Extended nine-Intersection Model (DE-9IM) 0,1 1,0 1,1 1,2 2,1

However, this is not about map borders – digital or otherwise.

McCarthy is definitely old school, if not Faulknerian. All fans of Neal Stephenson are excused. The Border Trilogy of course is all about a geographic border, the Southwest US Mexico border in particular. At other levels, McCarthy is rummaging about surfacing all sorts of borders: cultural borders, language borders (half the dialogue is Spanish), class borders, time borders (coming of age, epochal endings), moral borders with their many crossings. The setting is prewar 1930’s – 50’s, a pre-technology era as we now know it, and only McCarthy’s mastery of evocative language connects us to these times now lost.

A random excerpt illustrates:

“Because the outer door was open the flame in the glass fluttered and twisted and the little light that it afforded waxed and waned and threatened to expire entirely. The three of them bent over the poor pallet where the boy lay looked like ritual assassins. Bastante, the doctor said Bueno. He held up his dripping hands. They were dyed a rusty brown. The iodine moved in the pan like marbling blood. He nodded to the woman. Ponga el resto en el agua, he said. . . . “

The Crossing, Chapter III, p.24

Technology Borders
There are other borders, in our present preoccupation, for instance, “technology” borders. We’ve all recently crossed a new media border and are still feeling our way in the dark wondering where it may all lead. All we know for sure is that everything is changed. In some camps the euphoria is palpable, but vaguely disturbing. In others, change has only lately dawned on expiring regimes. Political realms are just now grappling with its meaning and consequence.

Big Data – Big Hopes
One of the more recent waves of the day is “Big Data,” by which is meant the collection and analysis of outlandishly large data sets, recently come to light as a side effect of new media. Search, location, communications, and social networks are all data gushers and the rush is on. There is no doubt that Big Data Analytics is powerful.

Disclosure: I’m currently paid to work on the periphery of a Big Data project, petabytes of live data compressed into cubes, pivoted, sliced, and doled out to a thread for visualizing geographically. My minor end of the Big Data shtick is the map. I am privy to neither data origins nor ends, but even without reading tea leaves, we can sense the forms and shadows of larger spheres snuffling in the night.

Analytics is used to learn from the past and hopefully see into the future, hence the rush to harness this new media power for business opportunism, and good old fashioned power politics. Big Data is an edge in financial markets where microseconds gain or lose fortunes. It can reveal opinion, cultural trends, markets, and social movements ahead of competitors. It can quantify lendibility, insurability, taxability, hireability, or securability. It’s an x-ray into social networks where appropriate pressure can gain advantage or thwart antagonists. Insight is the more benign side of Big Data. The other side, influence, attracts the powerful like bees to sugar.

Analytics is just the algorithm or lens to see forms in the chaos. The data itself is generated by new media gate keepers, the Googles, Twitters, and Facebooks of our new era, who are now in high demand, courted and feted by old regimes grappling for advantage.

Border Politics
Despite trenchant warnings by the likes of Nassim Taleb, “Beware the Big Errors of ‘Big Data’”, and Evgeny Morozov Net Delusion, the latest issue of “MIT Technology Review” declares in all caps:

“BIG DATA WILL SAVE POLITICS.”
“The mobile phone, the Net, and the spread of information —
a deadly combination for dictators”
MIT Tech Review

Really?

Dispelling the possibility of irony – feature articles in quick succession:

“A More Perfect Union”
“The definitive account of how the Obama campaign used big data to redefine politics.”
By Sasha Issenberg
“How Technology Has Restored the Soul of Politics”
“Longtime political operative Joe Trippi cheers the innovations of Obama 2012, saying they restored the primacy of the individual voter.”
By Joe Trippi
“Bono Sings the Praises of Technology”
“The musician and activist explains how technology provides the means to help us eradicate disease and extreme poverty.”
By Brian Bergstein

Whoa, anyone else feeling queasy? This has to be a classic case of Net Delusion! MIT Tech Review is notably the press ‘of technologists’, ‘by technologists’, and ‘for technologists’, but the hubris is striking even for academic and engineering types. The masters of technology are not especially sensitive to their own failings, after all, Google, the prima donna of new media, is anything but demure in its ambitions:

“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
… and in unacknowledged fine print, ‘for Google’

Where power is apparent the powerful prevail, and who is more powerful than the State? Intersections of technologies often prove fertile ground for change, but change is transient, almost by definition. Old regimes accommodate new regimes, harnessing new technologies to old ends. The Mongol pony, machine gun, aeroplane, and nuclear fission bestowed very temporary technological advantage. It is not quite apparent what is inevitable about the demise of old regime power in the face of new information velocity.

What Big Data offers with one hand it takes away with the other. Little programs like “socially responsible curated treatment” or “cognitive infiltration” are only possible with Big Data analytics. Any powerful elite worthy of the name would love handy Ministry of Truth programs that steer opinion away from “dangerous” ideas.

“It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes… we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions – especially selfish ones.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Utopian Borders
Techno utopianism, embarrassingly ardent in the Jan/Feb MIT Tech Review, blinds us to dangerous potentials. There is no historical precedent to presume an asymmetry of technology somehow inevitably biased to higher moral ends. Big Data technology is morally agnostic and only reflects the moral compass of its wielder. The idea that “… the spread of information is a deadly combination for dictators” may just as likely be “a deadly combination” for the naïve optimism of techno utopianism. Just ask an Iranian activist. When the bubble bursts, we will likely learn the hard way how the next psychopathic overlord will grasp the handles of new media technology, twisting big data in ways still unimaginable.

Big Data Big Brother?
Big Brother? US linked to new wave of censorship, surveillance on web
Forbes Big Data News Roundup
The Problem with Our Data Obsession
The Robot Will See You Now
Educating the Next Generation of Data Scientists
Moderated by Edd Dumbill (I’m not kidding)

Digital Dictatorship
Wily regimes like the DPRK can leverage primitive retro fashion brutality to insulate their populace from new media. Islamists master new media for more ancient forms of social pressure, sharia internet, fatwah by tweet. Oligarchies have co-opted the throttle of information, doling out artfully measured information and disinformation into the same stream. The elites of enlightened western societies adroitly harness new market methods for propagandizing their anaesthetized citizenry.

Have we missed anyone?

… and of moral borders
“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man”
The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Summary

We have crossed the border. Everything is changed. Or is it?

Interestingly Cormac McCarthy is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Road, arguably about erasure of all borders, apparently taking up where techno enthusiasm left off.

Borders_Fig2
Fig 2 – a poor man’s Big Data – GPU MapD – can you find your tweets?

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