by Barry Chudakov on April 4th, 2011

The Blind Men and the Elephant Stampede

The Blind Men and the Elephant, a story dating back to the 13th century, has been used by Sufis, Hindus, and Jain, among others to convey a profound truth: we describe the world based on local observation, blind to the larger picture. This parable of how we understand the world now comes with a twist. Today as vast quantities of information come via numerous communication tools, each tool gives us a useful but incomplete view. Once the world was a simple, lone elephant; now the world is buzzing with digital pachyderms. The story rings true while it has gone high-tech: we are still groping around for a comprehensive understanding but now the elephants are in stampede.

 

Photo credit: Charge!!!, Flickr, Michael and Donna, all rights reserved.

 

Recently a rumor has circulated that this narrative has a happy ending. Information, in the form of big data, promises to finally let the blind men see. Big data is “datasets that grow so large that they become awkward to work with using on-hand database management tools.” Such datasets present numerous challenges such as capture, storage, search, sharing, analytics, and visualizing.

Those rumors of a happy ending sound so enticing because new questions have begun to haunt us:

What if the world around us, mediated by news, is now so data-rich that we have trouble capturing, storing, searching, analyzing, or visualizing it all? What if stampeding elephants present the same comprehension problem as a stationary one: deja vu all over again?

This is particularly important since more of us are interpreting the world now from local perspectives as citizen journalists, fueled by hand-held communication gadgets. We fly into information head-first like avatars in Second Life, jumping into the virtual world of news, commenting and documenting as it happens—wherever we are and however we enter the endless feedback loop of reportage, video, commentary and insight.

Now local is global and global is just another thumb tribe.

 

Photo credit: Network graph of people on twitter connecting to the topics of Big Data, infochimps or Hadoop, n1atsigns2, Flickr, some rights reserved.

 

Seeing the Larger Picture

Local is now a curiously relative idea: when Michael Moore spoke at the the Madison labor protests was his speech local or national? When Egyptian protestors stormed state security buildings trying to retrieve files kept by the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, was it regional or global?

The tribal peoples who originated the blind men and the elephant story could not know that the history that came after their worldview would change their story. They were thinking through the oral traditions of an agrarian culture. In this worldview the story sets up a simple contrast:

Local versus global understanding [is misleading].

As 21st century residents, we have the (often bewildering) benefit of having watched worldviews come and go. We have some basic understanding of agrarian, industrial, post-industrial, and digitally-enabled worldviews. The new happy-ending paradigm is a different contrast altogether:

Local and global understanding are interconnected, interacting and feeding full-motion data streams [which provide practical and useful information for democratic communications and decision-making]

The paradox of each paradigm is that once inside, we find it hard to see around it. The key question worth considering: are we no longer blind now because we know more? Or, are we thinking in what Robert Graves called “broken images”—a sense of the larger picture that doesn’t fully create a larger picture?

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;

When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He continues quick and dull in his clear images;

I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.
He in a new confusion of his understanding;

I in a new understanding of my confusion.

If big data gives us a new understanding of our confusion—shows us the larger picture—that would certainly be valuable. But does it?

 

Worldviews From Toontown

Some would say in a world where data-driven derivatives can bring an entire banking system to its knees, we are all the blind men here. That idea is furthered as suddenly we cannot see through the dust-cloud of an all-enveloping now that is local and remote, parochially narrow and unfathomably broad. Tsunamis in Japan, revolt in Egypt, turmoil in Libya, the Casey Anthony trial in Orlando: each a few pixels on the iPhone screen. In the space of a deep breath of human history—less than two hundred years—we have moved the narrative of how the world works and what it means from a few sacred books and the pronouncements of priests and prophets to a 24/7 news cycle.

With the demise of oral culture, writing and the book became the keeper and arbiter of world views. While books became affordable to all classes of society only about 160 years ago, courtesy of the Industrial Revolution, with the rise of the global image economy, as the ways we looked at the world changed, our weltanshauung changed in lockstep with those ways.

Whatever a worldview was, it was fixed, not in flux. With the arrival of big data and continuous analysis, that may be about to change. In the face of multiple simultaneous perspectives afforded by ubiquitous global news and information cycles, a worldview may no longer be a fixed thing, but may move about considerably and we may find ourselves like Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit—trying to pin down a toon.

Stuff that used to be fixed just isn’t fixed anymore.

 

Jessica-rabbit1, Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike, www.wikihow.com.

 

Information Is Infomotion

Once information is in continuous motion, it takes our worldview, our sense of the elephant, with it.

Historically our worldview entailed deliberately constructed dogma and theological pronouncement (how the world works, how it began, how it will end). Today it is more blinding glimpse than intentional focus, and that view is a mimic of how the world comes to us. The world is instant-on. Like Google Fast Flip our comprehension of it is a bounce-and-glance from topic to topic.

And so, a more accurate way of describing our seeing the whole elephant today would be to consider our default embrace of technology-enabled seeing as a worldview in itself: we have come to think of the world and all its information moving past us in full flight as something impossible to keep up with, a geolocated torrent of living and virtual ephemera. Information has become infomotion. The continual movement and change (updating, revising, altering perspectives) is a key dynamic of a largely unarticulated new worldview.

Said differently, our worldview has moved from fact to flow, from isolated incident to pattern, from construction to connection.

In this emergent view of the world, data will never sit still again.

Our lives and the people watching them are amassing ever larger quantities of information, particularly as the fruit of more sophisticated search and tracking tools. We too are suffering from what Metamarkets Co-Founder Michael Driscoll calls the “attack of the exponentials.” As storage and bandwidth have gotten exponentially cheaper, making it feasible to tackle all this tracking, sniffing and fingerprinting, we and our watchers start to see benefits of working with ever larger datasets that enable spotting of business trends, prevent diseases, monitor traffic patterns or combat crime.

In a word, our every movement (or click or emotion) is someone’s business model. And it looks increasingly likely that we will first build narratives and then a worldview around that.

Big Data will likely become the new narrator in this story.

 

The blur of data creates intriguing patterns. Credit: Non-stop light from a Sea of Red II, Flickr, MyronC, all rights reserved.

 

Data Is a Metalife

Despite ever-greater quantities of information and knowledge, we still cannot see the whole elephant; so we use simulations to help us envision it.

Considering the ability to take vast quantities of data and find meaning in it through pattern-finding and analytics, I am wondering if we will eventually employ these analytics not only in finance, healthcare, marketing and IT, but in what we hear, see and encounter as the world goes by us and through us.

In fact, we are already starting down that road. Here is Deb Roy’s lifelogging experiment that documents his son’s first word, and the monitoring and data visualizations to capture and interpret it.

 

 

Then there is the dawning reality that our identities are already tied to our data. In essence, in some measure our identities are our data. The following true story serves to give a clearer picture of how data is already an arbiter, a shibboleth, an agent of triage.

 

From Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth located in the Tate Modern Museum. Credit: Shibboleth, Flickr, Peterharding, some rights reserved.

 

“They Don’t Want You Because They Don’t Want Your Data”

She was very sick. She’d gone through chemo and appeared to be going downhill; she wasn’t given long to live. Her brother, a systems engineer working in health information management accessed a database to check infection rates at the hospital where she was staying. The numbers didn’t look good; she needed to move. Consulting with his sister, they approached her doctor about moving her to a different hospital. On the surface this appeared to be a reasonably straightforward request: if one hospital wasn’t providing the environment she needed, find one that had a better track record.

But that was before big data. Now with ‘continuum of care’ data recording, hospitals carefully monitor procedures and outcomes. In fact, hospitals are rated on those outcomes and the ratings determine everything from federal funding, where applicable, to favorable rates from insurance companies, among other things. Foremost among undesirable outcomes is morbidity data, that is, the likelihood of patients to die once they are in a particular hospital. Like the isolation and quarantining of Typhoid Mary, few data-sensitive hospitals want to onboard a patient who will contribute negatively to their morbidity data.

Luckily, this story has a happier ending. The sister’s doctor was able to find a hospital willing to admit her, she improved in the new hospital environment, and today is in remission. But later, in discussions with her doctor, the brother and sister discovered the story behind the story. It was not easy for her doctor to find a hospital that would take her in. Why? In her doctor’s explanation we hear a new and emerging narrative. While some might find her doctor’s words a shock, those inside the healthcare beltway know this is the dark underside of data tracking: “They don’t want you because they don’t want your data,” the doctor told them.

In other words, her data gave her a Metalife. And this Metalife was a matter of Metalife and death, a shibboleth that either admitted her or cast her out. What I am interested in here is the ready adoption of rationale, the distancing that comes from building systems and using data to manage those systems. In many areas of our daily lives, from payment transactions to web clicks and tracking; from dating to house pricing and healthcare, data is a decider.

Enter the new narrator: big data.

About this time we start to ask ourselves: Do I believe the narrator? How do we think about information now and how have we come to think like this?

The narrator is telling us as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, information holds things together: it is a binding agent for systems. As such it is not only a new decider of what’s important or not, it is a new proxy—it can stand in place of anyone.

What the narrator isn’t saying is that data has become a new belief system. In human history we’ve had this sort of binder before and we used the Latin base religare, meaning to bind together, to embody this concept.

Information has become religion.

The new narrative of the apostles: join this religion, believe in information and marabile dictu, the blind men see. Whether they will see the whole animal, now in full stampede, remains an open question.

 

The stampede is here. Credit: Elephant Herd, Flickr, Michael and Donna, all rights reserved.

 

 

More Information

As Computer Capacity Soars, Users Drowning in Data

Big Data Marketplaces Put a Price on Finding Patterns

Data Analysis Is Creating New Business Opportunities

Data, Data Everywhere

Defining a Data Deluge

Earth Projects Aims to ‘Simulate Everything’

How OkCupid Demystifies Dating With Big Data

Innovating with Business Data

Is Big Data Making Us Dumber?

Is There a Scientific Data Logjam?

Money As Big Data: Mapping the History of Filthy Lucre

Media Black Hole: So Much Information That We’ll Implode?

People Aren’t Ready for the Technology Revolution

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick

What Big Data Needs: A Code of Ethical Practices

 

The Blind Men and the Elephant Stampede is the first in a two-part series on big data. Next: Why information and religion have a common root and how the big data dynamics of mining, analytics, finding patterns, and finding-as-learning are the key dynamics of flow. Taken together this tool set of flow is a new grammar of understanding and ultimately, a new worldview.

 

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From Commentary

4 Comments
  1. Good article.

    Werner Erhard once said, “In life, understanding is the booby prize.” If the function of big data is to give us ever greater understanding of the world, and life, does that actually contribute to our well-being or does it merely add complexity to our innate confusion? While it’s useful to know the role and function of every molecule in our bodies, and how they are effecting our health, I find myself bewildered and somewhat overwhelmed by the complexity of my TV. And what comes out of it is almost totally unintelligible. At ground level, big data is probably a big headache.

  2. Amazing website, I really liked your entry.

  3. Metalifestream permalink

    Thanks very much for your good words. Glad you liked it.

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