Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Big Data's Strategic Inflection Point

Image Source: RNZ.

Collection, surveillance, analysis, prediction: there are reasons why the battle between freedom and slavery will take place on the Internet. Only in the past decade did big data enter the headlines, because the necessary hardware and storage capacity became affordable for corporations. In addition, governmental and corporate data crunching capability improved to enable what panelists at Financier Worldwide call, "curation ... of enormous data sets" and "the ability to predict when a certain business-contextual event is about to happen, and then to adjust accordingly in an automated fashion."

Few people read the fine print when they sign up for social media accounts, so they do not understand how others now own their personal identities and seek to decide their fates. Nor do they understand how the Internet of Things forms a network of physical objects around them to glean and mobilize information. From Radio New Zealand:
"I was on Facebook recently and I realised they were showing me a photo that wasn't already on my newsfeed and that I wasn't even tagged in, that had come from my camera roll."
In 2016, Edward Snowden stated that surveillance was about "social control," not terrorism. Certainly, companies such as Oracle (cloud database management), LexisNexis (legal and business risk management services), and Micron (semi-conductor solutions) confirm Snowden's narrative (see my earlier posts on this topic here, here, here and here).

Image Source: Sputnik International.

counter-surveillance movement arose to combat government and corporate intrusion. A talk from the 2016 hackers' Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg, Germany describes the problem:
"Today virtually everything we do is monitored in some way. The collection, analysis and utilization of digital information about our clicks, swipes, likes, purchases, movements, behaviors and interests have become part of everyday life. While individuals become increasingly transparent, companies take control of the recorded data."
Mozilla, developers of the Firefox browser, developed Lightbeam so you can see who is tracking you while you browse. Privacy Lab has made available online a 2016 book by Wolfie Christl and Sarah Spiekermann: Networks of Control: A Report on Corporate Surveillance, Digital Tracking, Big Data and Privacy (Hat tip and thanks: Janine Römer). The book explains how social control through big data actually works, and it is far more evil, insidious and Darwinian than one would imagine, because algorithms target individuals' socio-economic performance in life to create new kinds of discrimination. When you state what you are doing or thinking on Facebook or Twitter, when you surf the Web, when you buy things, travel, or read certain news stories, you are letting the world know how successful you are or are not, by other people's mechanized standards:
"Today, a vast landscape of partially interlinked databases has emerged which serve to characterize each one of us. Whenever we use our smartphone, a laptop, an ATM or credit card, or our ‘smart’ TV sets detailed information is transmitted about our behaviors and movements to servers, which might be located at the other end of the world. A rapidly growing number of our interactions is monitored, analyzed and assessed by a network of machines and software algorithms that are operated by companies we have rarely ever heard of. Without our knowledge and hardly with our effectively informed consent, our individual strengths and weaknesses, interests, preferences, miseries, fortunes, illnesses, successes, secrets and – most importantly – purchasing power are surveyed. If we don’t score well, we are not treated as equal to our better peers. We are categorized, excluded and sometimes invisibly observed by an obscure network of machines for potential misconduct and without having any control over such practices.

While the media and special interest groups are aware of these developments for a while now, we believe that the full degree and scale of personal data collection, use and – in particular – abuse has not been scrutinized closely enough. This is the gap we want to close with the study presented in this book."
Corporate surveillance, digital tracking, big data and privacy: How thousands of companies are profiling, categorizing, rating and affecting the lives of billions. Talk by Wolfie Christl at CCC Congress (30 December 2016). Video Source: CCC-TV. Hat tip and thanks: Janine Römer.

Thus, the debate around big data focuses on post-2013, post-Snowden ideas: privacy or anonymity; predictive marketing; social control; totalitarianism. Yet Utopia or Dystopia recognizes that big data are so superhuman in quantity that they blur reality:
"Big Data; does it actually provide us with a useful map of reality, or instead drown us in mostly useless information? ... [D]oes Big Data actually make us safer? ... [H]ow is the truth to survive in a world where seemingly any organization or person can create their own version of reality. Doesn’t the lack of transparency by corporations or the government give rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories in such an atmosphere, and isn’t it ultimately futile ... for corporations and governments to try to shape all these newly enabled voices to its liking through spin and propaganda?"
Instead of big data driving fears of exploitation and totalitarianism, this concern revives far older contests between rationality and the unknowable.

Bodies of big data are so big that they become a kind of big mind, a combined collective consciousness and collective unconscious. To account for virtual reality by known means is impossible. Academic history as we knew it, 15 years ago, cannot now be written according to traditional methods and new methods must be developed. The body of data is: (a) too vast to be processed by a human; (b) unfixed: potentially subject to infinite alteration; and (c) stored in languages and on devices which rapidly become obsolete.

The same goes for the social sciences. Try to analyze the online kekkism in the recent American election and be prepared to confront something akin to magic which will defy current theories. The great modern experiment to rationalize the world breaks down in the face of anti-rationality, hacking, and Underground cryptics, whether by anonymity and encryption, or by mysterious forms of communication, behaviour and awareness, which will surpass knowledge and understanding. Big data erode reality, and this is why the ISIS publicity bureau and magazine can promote an apocalyptic eschatology unironically in this day and age. When you are operating in an environment where X zillion bits of data are being created every second, an apocalypse seems appropriate to some, and makes more sense.

Digital Book World recently weighed the pros and cons of big data. Mathematician Cathy O'Neil - who joked that her New Year's resolutions included the plan to gain 10 pounds and start smoking, and who wrote the 2016 book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy - warned Digital Book World that algorithms are not the rational tools they seem to be. Instead, algorithms are artifacts, the techno-dynamic features of which are correlated against human aspects, such as sales numbers and social media traction. As algorithms manipulate big data to locate desired human results, they become, in O'Neil's estimation, new kinds of laws:
"When it comes to human activities, algorithms are expected to be models of objectivity, owing to their basis in mathematical formulae and reliance on enormous quantities of measured facts about a given general population, whether students or teachers, job applicants or criminal defendants. Cathy O’Neil makes the case that real-world mathematical models are anything but objective. ... [S]he asserts that big data WMDs are opaque, unaccountable and destructive and that they essentially act as unwritten and unpublished secret laws."
Despite these warnings, on 22 August 2016, Digital Book World remained optimistic about what the Panama Papers can tell us about deep learning. The lesson is not about offshore accounts, corruption, and a meshed network of legitimate and illegitimate interests spanning the globe. The Panama Papers show, according to DBW, that big data are a gold mine for profit, right at something called big data's strategic inflection point:
"[The Panama Papers] should ... serve as a stark reminder of the hidden value sitting locked in large amounts of unstructured data, such as notes, documents and emails.

In recent years, we’ve seen businesses in many industries solve the puzzle of big data and begin to extract the insights that can accelerate innovation and grow revenue. Healthcare, finance and retail are three that immediately come to mind that are at the forefront of using big data. But that is only the beginning.

Consider this: 90 percent of the world’s data only came into existence in the last two years. With more of our lives moving online and into the cloud, this remarkable growth of data will only accelerate, offering enormous possibilities to the businesses that can navigate these massive data collections.

The Panama Papers are a roadmap. It is now possible to collect and analyze data faster than ever before through the use of unparalleled computing power and machine learning methods, such as deep learning. Unstructured data, such as the text in the posts and messages of social media that most of the world uses, emails that were leaked or subpoenaed, laboratory notes or technical documentation, represent a massive opportunity for businesses that can harness it. ...

Andy Grove, retired CEO of Intel Corp., calls this moment in potential growth a 'strategic inflection point' — the point at which two major pathways temporarily coincide — between doing business as usual, or embracing and adapting to the new."
Digital Marketing Transit Map (25 June 2013). Click to enlarge. Image Source: Gartner.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year's Bells and Divine Sources

Bells in Nepal. Image Source: Ampersand Travel.

Start the new year in the Himalayas, the world's greatest mountains. They are the source of epics and myths, gods and religions. Temples dot these mountains, decked by bells and visited by pilgrims and tourists. The Himalayas provide the source of the Hindus' most sacred river, the Ganges.