Will art help us harness big data better than we handled big oil?

Big data could be the new big oil. That's the good news — or the bad news, depending on how we manage this vast resource.

Big data is the seemingly ubiquitous term we use to describe the growing ocean of digital information, including the data generated by all of us as we carry out our modern lives. The trail of data produced by our travel, transactions, even our physical locations constantly contributes to this vast, expanding digital reserve. It's a hot topic in business as well as social innovation. 

Jer Thorp (PopTech 2012) has launched The Office For Creative Research. Thorp joins a chorus of data specialists who see the potential for powerful social innovations hidden in that sea of data, but Thorp also sees potential disaster unless we move forward thoughtfully.  

Jer Thorp

That's because the barely tapped potential of big data to make money and change the world in all kinds of ways is considered so powerful that some people have begun to call big data the new big oil. In his 2012 PopTech talk, Thorp says that metaphor may be apt, but that he finds part of that proposition "terrifying."

"We didn’t do very well with oil," Thorp explains, as he shares a frightening set of slides of oil spills, traffic jams and polar bears clinging to shrinking ice flows. 

He is glad that social innovators are exploring ways to aggregate, splice, dice and manipulate some of that data in ways that could help us prevent transmittable diseases, build better cities, and reduce traffic. But what Thorp finds terrifying is that private corporations have mostly led the way in aggressively exploiting big data. He argues that important considerations such as privacy and ethics should not be primarily adjudicated by businesses whose primary interest in big data is to increase profits.  

"I’m really interested in how we can do a better job with data than we did with oil," he explains. Thorp wants to provoke a social consensus on the handling and use of big data, from data ownership to data ethics. 

As an artist, Thorp sees an opportunity to use art derived from big data to move that conversation forward, for "sharing with people and exposing to people what is happening in this data world."

"What is the subjective experience like of living in this world of big data?" he asks. "What is it like to be us living in this ever-more complicated world?"

Thorp's massive, multi-colored, often 3-D pieces depict cell phone calling history over time, peoples' daily travel patterns, Tweets from passengers disembarking from airplanes, or patterns of good-morning Tweets.

The idea is to get people to understand the breadth and potential power of all this data. "Let’s try to not make the same mistakes with this new resource that we have with the last ones," he says. 

Jer Thorp's Camden 2012 talk appears below:

 

 

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