What in/is the World is/of Big Data?

From the Series: Digital Ontology

Photo by Gerd Altman.

Big Data is not just the proliferation of crunchable information. Rather, Big Data comes with the dawning realization that contemporary processes leave a digital signature as they unfold. With this digital duplication of the social comes the further expectation that disparate data estates can and should be brought together to make these processes legible. Accordingly, big claims are made for Big Data. Government, academia, and the private sector all expect Big Data to prompt a veritable revolution in social-scientific understanding and practice.

A visual impression of Big Data. Photo courtesy of DARPA.

To assess the extent to which Big Data and its digital operator might play a role in refiguring the fundaments of contemporary thought, it may be useful to consider the possibilities open to Big Data given, cosmologically speaking, the world it inhabits. A speculative roam with a theoretical guidebook in hand might foreground some key access points into the inquiry: indicating, especially, the ontological salience of topological relations between Origins, things created, and possibilities of measurement. We can see how such an experiment pans out by ideal-typically contrasting (a) pre- and non-Newtonian worlds without data with (b) Newtonian worlds in which data gets big, but not Big and (c) post-Newtonian worlds in which Big Data thrives.

In pre and non-Newtonian worlds, social reproduction reenacts the original creation of the world, typically through ritual. In such worlds, symbolically marked phenomena are elongated space-time mediators, containing and presupposing the form of their generative origin and the shape of their descended being. It is precisely because entities in these worlds topologically twist polarized space-time within themselves that the numerical measurement of surface parameters fails (to emerge).

By way of contrast, in worlds marked by a cosmological aloofness toward the Origin, the governance of created forms is likely to be indirect. No longer ritually reproduced, created entities will flourish (or not) in a decolonized space-time potentially possessed of its own internal coherence and transformational possibility. In European culture, this freed-up space-time became Nature and History; on its many planes, entities untwisted from the grip of the Origin and extended into each other, pivoting on their various axes as more or less integrated mechanisms. In the Cartesian and Newtonian worlds, far from being a purely industrial insight into the ways of Nature, mechanism became the perceived means by which a withdrawn, but omniscient God set elements in stable, law-governed relation to one another and continued to harmonize them at a distance. It is on the back of these deist propositions (of a withdrawn god, a mechanistic cosmos, and harmonious laws of Nature) that the mathematical measurement of durably covarying parts initiated enlightened subjects into knowledge of God’s laws, granting epistemic primacy to large numbers.

But this is not the world of Big Data! In now distinctly post-Newtonian times, most contemporary thinkers see high degrees of disharmonic indeterminacy and uncertainty. The late-modern world is typified by high levels of stochastic process, in-built disruption, dissociation, and observational relativity. Knowledge itself is not spared this disharmony, its logics becoming to varying extents detotalized, detached, and potentially faulty. Moreover, with the wholesale collapse of progressive realism in the field of social inquiry, the social itself has come to look very similar to its physical and biological counterparts. Communicative convergences are everywhere disembedded and liquefied, monstrously dislocated by side effect, given to nomadic flight and predation by black swans. Far from being truly, finally dead, “God” is everywhere creating forms and relations afresh, establishing termini and novel openings in the form of distributed and recurrent re-creation, scattering outcomes without pattern or notice. Ontologically speaking, therefore, the world of Big Data is one of interrupted stability and stabilized chaos. Given this complexity, does data survive? What is its Big possibility?

One possibility is that, with such a perceived disconnect between scientific knowledge and the turbulence of continuous creation, numerical data as an essential good will begin to recede. In this postrepresentational move, Big Data stars as a confidence trick, its narrative reaching back into a Newtonian world whose epistemic grounds have fallen away. An opposite possibility is that Big Data will be probed for discernible trends toward tipping points (ecological, for example), its value reposing less in its capacity to model social intervention than to plumb contemporary limits. A third possibility is that Big Data will become the digital “brain” of an already pronounced short-termism, responding to indeterminacy and uncertainty by compounding numerically thick cartographies of the moment. Here, Big Data is deployed either to take advantage of billions of instantaneous microchanges (as in electronic markets), or to gel ephemeral patches of precious stability within the quicksilver fluidity of the here-and-now. Still a fourth possibility is that, by trawling at high speeds through terabytes of preponderantly conventional experimental information, Big Data will find the speck that helps to confirm the massive theory (e.g., of fundamental particles, as with the Higgs-Boson experiments at CERN).

In uncertain conditions of recurrent and distributed creation, the clear temptation is to ditch data per se, or to atheoretically embrace Big Data for its capacity to find immediate salvation in the moment. However, in our post-Newtonian world, human futures also unfold on trajectories longer and broader than this will allow. If Big Data is to contribute to the illumination of these arcs, it needs the archaeological support of ethnography and the imaginative logic of theory.

During the 1970s, Benoit Mandelbrot used IBM computers to graphically visualize fractals that could only be nominally specified in theory. It may, likewise, turn out that in the process of digitally deepening the knowledge of elusive pattern, fundamentally new ways of knowing will morph into the radical refiguration of what is to be known. Such an ontological turn will not be born asexually to the digital, but rather out of its incestuous union with the knowledges that have spawned it and the worldviews that nourish its brainy possibilities.