Deep Thoughts for Friday Morning

Last year The Economist published a special report not on the global financial crisis or the polarization of the American electorate, but on the era of big data. Article after article cited one big number after another to bolster the claim that we live in an age of information superabundance. The data are impressive: 300 billion emails, 200 million tweets, and 2.5 billion text messages course through our digital networks every day, and, if these numbers were not staggering enough, scientists are reportedly awash in even more information. This past January astronomers surveying the sky with the Sloan telescope in New Mexico released over 49.5 terabytes of information—a mass of images and measurements—in one data drop. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), however, produces almost that much information per second. Last year alone, the world’s information base is estimated to have doubled every eleven hours. Just a decade ago, computer professionals spoke of kilobytes and megabytes. Today they talk of the terabyte, the petabyte, the exabyte, the zettabyte, and now the yottabyte, each a thousand times bigger than the last. Some see this as information abundance, others as information overload. The advent of digital information and with it the era of big data allows geneticists to decode the human genome, humanists to search entire bodies of literature, and businesses to spot economic trends. But it is also creating for many the sense that we are being overwhelmed by information. How are we to manage it all? What are we to make, as Ann Blair asks, of a zettabyte of information—a one with 21 zeros after it?1 From a more embodied, human perspective, these tremendous scales of information are rather meaningless. We do not experience information as pure data, be it a byte or a yottabyte, but as filtered and framed through the keyboards, screens, and touchpads of our digital technologies. However impressive these astronomical scales of information may be, our contemporary awe and increasing worry about all this data obscures the ways in which we actually engage it and the world of which it and we are a part. All of the chatter about information superabundance and overload tends not only to marginalize human persons, but also to render technology just as abstract as a yottabyte. An email is reduced to yet another data point, the Web to an infinite complex of protocols and machinery, Google to a neutral machine for producing information. Our compulsive talk about information overload can isolate and abstract digital technology from society, human persons, and our broader culture. We have become distracted by all the data and inarticulate about our digital technologies.

The more pressing, if more complex, task of our digital age, then, lies not in figuring out what comes after the yottabyte, but in cultivating contact with an increasingly technologically formed world.2 In order to understand how our lives are already deeply formed by technology, we need to consider information not only in the abstract terms of terrabytes and zettabytes, but also in more cultural terms. How do the technologies that humans form to engage the world come in turn to form us? What do these technologies that are of our own making and irreducible elements of our own being do to us? The analytical task lies in identifying and embracing forms of human agency particular to our digital age, without reducing technology to a mere mechanical extension of the human, to a mere tool. In short, asking whether Google makes us stupid, as some cultural critics recently have, is the wrong question. It assumes sharp distinctions between humans and technology that are no longer, if they ever were, tenable.

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