"Now I am become Data, the destroyer of Conventions." . 2021
With apologies to the Bhagavad Gita (After Oppenheimer)

I thought I had exhausted my views on the accumulation and application of data, which I definitely regard with a mixture of love and hate but I've felt a certain shift in the balance over this last year, probably because of the involvement and impact it's had during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data stepped up another gear everywhere and everything seems to be reliant on instantaneous, continuous update now – a sort of all-encompassing mindfulness. And it's made me contemplate even more what power is, who has it, or “owns” it and how it is used. After all, almost anything can be measured and stored as data, they're just statistics compared against specific values. This is census year in the U.K., a collection of data recorded once every ten years, it takes data from the adult population for comparative measurements on certain specifics, which we're told takes only 10 minutes to fill in. As I filled mine in it struck me that the average person is probably providing 100 times more data of various types every day - from passive CCTV and phone use to actively supplying it to Facebook, Twitter and innumeral other Apps – and for no particular reason or reward. But of course we've been told many times that if we use a free service then it's us that's the product.

So here's another shot at visualising my views on the phenomenon of these monster sized “Big Tech” companies that are still growing exponentially in their global influence. I think I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that these rapacious data collection and algorithm powered behemoths are every bit as natural (and needed) in the process of evolution as any other evolutionary stage in history that exploited new technology, it's just that this is now at a different “warp speed” and scale.

 
 

Take the wheel, although a constantly occuring shape in nature it still had to be “discovered” and through innovation, its early uses made it a ubiquitous techology employed in everything from ox carts to Pyramid building. The inventiveness and uses has continued of course, evolving through the era of pulley and gear systems to the first factories powered by water wheels – now we don't give wheel technology a second thought: they're just wheels...used everywhere – even on the Mars Perseverance Rover.

Another naturally occuring curiosity was something first noticed thousands of years ago in fish that gave a shock when touched and lightning bolts that appeared to be the same sort of energy of immense intensity - but it took until the 19th Century for serious experimentation to begin and then around 1880 Edison harnessed electricity for lighting in a commercially viable way. Then, as they say - the rest is history: because once electricity and how to generate it was understood, electrically powered innovations exploded going from a lightbulb to the very same Mars Perseverance Rover in only 140 years. But the point is that every single electrically powered device ever invented is reliant on the same knowledge of electricity for its power source (open knowledge like the wheel) - so no matter what the energy source the power created is identical. And so production and supply of electricity whether it is converted from coal fired steam, from oil, or nuclear it is generally available to most of the planet wherever there is a source of energy that can be exploited and converted into electrical power. This of course has given rise to - and been the root cause of - a lot of the global problems in the last 140 years because of the struggles and conflicts fought over who controls the sources of energy. After all it is what it “says on the tin” - POWER.
However, a closer look at what has actually been happening in the journey of this entity we call power is just as evolutionary as the wheel. And there's something I only realised quite recently with the new generation of wave, wind and solar powered generators - the new companies replacing the old poluting power generators have mostly begun to use the term energy - “clean energy” - and it made me think! With the ever accelerating advance of clean electrical generators (and even more innovations in the pipeline) maybe electrical power is becoming so easily and cheaply available that it's losing the classification of “power” and in the same way that the wheel is just taken for granted – electricity is somehow being downgraded to just energy now. But then if so, does that mean...cutting off a sector of society's vital power supply might not mean cutting off electricity any more?

 
 
 
 

Which I suppose brings me to the crux of this piece - and about the title. So it's just my observation of what power really is but specifically the power which is now in the ascendant – raw data. As with these examples of other fundamental discoveries – the wheel and electrical power - once identified and harnessed, their uses are limited only by the imagination and invention. So now if the new base unit of power is data - already having a profound influence on the planet and still at the embryonic stage – then structures setting up to harvest and process these unimaginable quantities of raw data are basically the true power-brokers of today.

 
 
 
 

They are able to “hoover” up and utilise almost any information they choose from their customers, exploiting their desires and their weaknesses, be it for goods, services, communication, entertainment or whatever. And it isn't just their customers they exploit, they do exactly the same with their competitors: or just gobble them up whole, straight from their inception (hence the Pacman imagery). They can initiate or clone a new virtual or online based version of almost any business they choose. Some can even conjure new businesses up out of empty space – in empty space - almost overnight! Which is brilliant of course, but it begs the question in every case – how did they grow so quickly - what are these behemoths consuming? It's as though they're taking some sort of growth data-steroid. Well part of the answer of course has to be the spark of innovation or opportunity which someone has seen in utilising this new power source of raw data. Then with a novel or specialized use of data it can very quickly construct or attract a new marketable product – all it needs then is the right amount of ready investors to jump on board. Something else just struck me as interesting – considering where most of these Big Tech companies are located – is this just the same as the gold rush? Anyway, growth usually starts slowly but through specialisation (or being first in its application) it can easily propel it to the top of any specific food chain very quickly where they then get to keep picking the “biggest, ripest fruits” before anyone else gets to them. Some recent examples of the power they now wield (rightly or wrongly) are search engines blocking undesirable competition, Presidents blocked from communication facilities, whole countries blocked out from newsfeeds etc. and of course these are only the “big” headline stories we get to hear about...ironically reported by the very same organisations that are doing it. I have to put in here that I'm only refering to so-called “free” democratic systems - we can't even imagine the other 99.9% that's going on in the whole of “data-land”.

And all I can say about the power of currencies is that they are only symbolic constructs and have always been manipulated: but in the words of Bachman Turner Overdrive – “You Ain't seen Nothing Yet”.

 
 


I've got a lot more to explore in this rich seam but for now it seems to me that the processing and enrichment of raw data could one day be as important as the enrichment of uranium. And for obvious reasons regarding the safety of our planet we desperately try to keep that within certain conventions.

Which brings me right back to the title - Now I am become Data, the destroyer of Conventions.

Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita when he saw the raw power of a nuclear explosion...Now I am Death, the Destroyer of worlds.

Of course I'm not actually likening it to the same or similar situation...but Quantum computing is coming next!

..................But even then...there will still be the “Ghost in the Machine!”

14.03.21

 

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