Catherine Pierre, my boss, likes to tell the story of a conversation she and I had with an astrophysicist a few years ago. I have forgotten most of the details, but at one point he mentioned how much information one group of scientists was gathering about the universe, and I spontaneously exclaimed, “Man, talk about a data set!” Pierre takes undue delight in offering this up to appreciative listeners as an example of my nerdiness.
So there was no chance of my passing up California‘s “Riding the iBomb: Life in the Age of Exploding Information.” Written by executive editor Pat Joseph, it’s an 11-page spread in the feature well plus a jump, and Joseph had me the whole way.
When you write about something with the potential for aridity of Big Data, you are well advised to pull some wit from your toolbox. Joseph has a smooth way with droll allusion:
Futurist Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload” in the 1970s, but the lament is as old as the Bible. I hear it echoing in my ears whenever I walk into Moe’s Books or the Doe Library: “Of making many books there is no end.” That goes more than double for blog posts and tweets and—God help us—Buzzfeed lists, the dreaded “listicles.” With apologies to Ecclesiastes, the current info glut really is something new under the Sun.
Joseph offers the most astute explanation of Moore’s Law that I have come across recently:
The engine of this acceleration is described by Moore’s Law, which is not really a law so much as an astoundingly accurate prediction. Intel cofounder and Berkeley alum Gordon Moore made the offhand observation in 1965 that the number of transistors on integrated circuits was doubling every two years and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And so it has (growing even faster, doubling every 18 months or so), with the concomitant effect that computing has become not only faster but cheaper. In that way, Moore’s Law also helps to explain why most of our electronic gadgets seem to obsolesce overnight.
I was arrested by Joseph’s use of “obsolesce.” Write “obsolesce” instead of the common “become obsolete” and you reveal yourself as a writer attentive to language, which Joseph is, and not just in his prose but in his reporting. Joseph confirms this a bit later in the piece:
The watchword around campus now, much favored over Big Data, which is looked upon as hype-fueled and faddish, is “data-driven discovery.” Faculty members also speak of bringing a “computational lens” to research problems.
There’s a lot of righteous prose here. Joseph has a knack for clarification:
In an interview before he died, Peter Lyman drove home a similar distinction, between information and meaning. Referring to the aforementioned study he conducted with I-school colleague Hal Varian, Lyman said: “All we tried to measure in figuring out how much information is produced was how much storage it would take to hold it all. What we didn’t address is what makes information valuable…. There’s a real gap between the amount of information we store and the amount of information we know how to use.… So in a sense, most of it is noise.”
Filtering the signal from the noise is the principle challenge for all Big Data enterprises, whether it’s astronomers searching for supernovae in raster scans of the night sky, or agents at the NSA listening for whispered hints of terror plots in the vastness of global communications. Big Data is just the haystack; we still have to find the needle. Scratch that. Increasingly, it’s our computers, running what are called inferential algorithms, that have to find it. Our job now is to verify that what is found is, in fact, a needle and not, say, a pin, or a nail, or a piece of hay.
I could go on, but go read the piece yourself. You’ll be rewarded. Last thing: California makes clever use of footnotes in the story. Yeah, footnotes. Joseph scatters them throughout his piece—they are contained in boxes on the pages—and they provide one more opportunity for lively writing. For example:
I should confess here that I’ve assembled much of the information for this article in precisely this way and, that, often as not, my starting point was Wikipedia. No doubt this admission will arouse suspicions, maybe even disdain, in some readers. Perhaps that’s as it should be. As George Dyson’s father, Freeman Dyson, wrote: “Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.”
All right, that’s enough. Go read it.