Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Hidden Significance of the Big Data Explosion

By Joe Brewer/Source Ref Chaotic Ripples on April 17, 2014 at 8:30 am

(The development of the Universal Debating Project could be seen as a manifestation of Big Data needed to help humanity progress in a positive direction RS/The Blogger/Blog Ref )

The world is awash in data.  Billions of people routinely surf the web and click on links. They connect with their friends, like or block content to suit their preferences, and share information widely on social media sites.  This happens every single day.
Even more people get into cars, take buses and trains, board airplanes, or move around by human power on their commutes to work, exercise routines, daily errands, and to socialize with friends and family.  This also happens every single day. What most of us are just beginning to realize is that all of these activities (and many more) now produce streams of data.  Data that gets aggregated.  Data that is analyzed for patterns of meaning to be used by governments, research institutions, and commercial enterprises.  Data that makes visible the awe-inspiring dynamics of our human world.
We now routinely hear about things like “smart cities” that can monitor real-time data to attenuate themselves in the manner of a living organism. We see analytics on the “social web” that can track emotions and cluster words that appear together in everyday conversations.  This is data about ourselves.  It is like holding up a mirror and seeing our behaviors reflected in the data traces left behind by our interactions in the world.
The news cycle can’t keep up with all the media produced about new products and services, startup companies deploying new technologies, and civil society institutions introducing novel practices.  All of which is unfolding in every sector of society around the world every single day.  Yet there is something much deeper, much more profound, going on that isn’t getting talked about at all.  Humanity is waking up to the fact that culture is physical.
For millennia, at least in the Western world, our philosophies have been plagued by dualities.  We have split the mental off from the physical since the days of Aristotle, reaching a pinnacle of presumed separateness during the early Modern Era in the late 16th and 17th Centuries.  At that time the universe was conceived as being a giant mechanical clock—lifeless and without a mind of its own—ticking away as stars were born and died away.
It was in this context that Descartes made famous his dictum Cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—the clearest articulation of mind-body dualism the world has ever known.  He needed a way to preserve the existence of mind in a universe that the dominant thinking of the day dictated could not have one. So he placed the mind in a parallel universe and linked it to the physical world through the pineal gland of the human brain.  And yet, even at this height of presumed separateness, seeds were being sown that would bring about the demise of dualisms in the centuries ahead.
It was Descartes’ own analytic geometry, alongside the new calculus of Newton and Leibniz, that produced the tools of reductionist science and carried us into the Age of Industrialism.  And it was during the industrial era that we pushed dualistic analysis to its breaking point.  Cracks in the facade became evident early on in the 19th Century with the rise of field theories in electromagnetism and later through the emergence of quantum mechanics.
This was the period of “positivism” in science that really came to a head in 1850 during the Vienna Circle, a meeting of minds in Austria whose purpose was to distinguish that which is real and measurable (and therefore worthy of calling science) from that which is ephemeral and not of the material world.  The number zero was a major source of contention at that time because it both symbolized nothing of material concreteness yet was absolutely essential for the calculus so vital to the success of materialism’s greatest achievement—the field of physics itself.  A major outcome of this dialogue was to declare the social sciences “soft” and unworthy of rigorous treatment.
Positivism rose and fell during the rapid expansions of knowledge in the early 20th Century, when critical theory and its allies came to battle with and weaken reductionist science.  Their attacks on objectivity were most damning of all, demonstrating with a powerful efficiency that the research subject could never be separated from her object of study.  It was during this time that the cracks broke through the wall of dualism and removed the capital “T” from the truth value of scientific knowledge.  The final death blow came from the most unexpected of places—a discrete mathematics that had descended from Descartes’ analytic geometry. This was what led to digital computing in the mid-20th Century and the new mathematical tools that would birth a fully integrated systems science in the decades that followed.
Just as dualism was having its hey day, dividing everything into manageable bits and riding the wave of successes from reductionist science, the burgeoning realization that all is connected was growing in its voracity to undermine and usurp the pillars of science.  It was digital computing that enabled the meteorologist, Edward Lorentz, to discover deterministic chaos in the 1960’s.  He showed that even the smallest uncertainties can balloon beyond the size of an entire system in only a few discrete time steps.  This “sensitivity to initial conditions” showed how profoundly embedded numerical computations are in real-world systems.
Around the same time, computers enabled the first massive calculations of population dynamics in the newly born field of ecology.  This made visible the numerical patterns of living systems that could be studied with increasing sophistication as hardware improvements increased the computational power available to researchers.  Biology was starting to benefit from the advanced tools of physical science—more cracks in the dualism wall whose far-reaching consequences would take decades to fully see.
Dualism had its time in the lime light even as the shadows were creeping in.  We now live in a world dominated by complex systems designed and built by humans.  Computers that manage our financial transactions, even to the point of collapse as interdependence rears its ugly head and cascades disruptions across our global economy.  They also monitor internal pressure, temperature, and mixing ratios of chemicals in the engines of our automobiles to allow us to squeeze every ounce of energy out of liquid fuels.  Computers even keep blood flowing through our hearts with the pacemakers that monitor and influence the chaotic attractors that are capable of beating out of sync with our bodies in the turbulent flows that produce heart attacks.
We have always been embedded in (and arising from) physical systems, though it wasn’t until recently that this fundamental truth made its way into mainstream thinking.  That same data explosion we started this article out with is now producing daily experiences of immersion in the physical world.  Our mobile phones, with their GPS tracking devices and integrated software applications, are helping us to visualize and make real the fact that we have always been a part of this world.
Humanity is waking up to its ecological nature.

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