The new PBS documentary “The Human Face of Big Data,” about pervasive data collection and what that could mean for our lives and future, is alternately heartening and disturbing but always fascinating.
The hourlong film, premiering Wednesday, Feb. 24 (check local listings), examines the promises and perils of this unstoppable force that is sweeping through our lives.
Most everything we do and say these days is gathered and recorded, and it’s put out there mainly by two devices that most consider indispensable parts of their lives: cellphones and personal computers. So anything we search for on the Internet, any text message, email, place we go, item we buy or website we visit is recorded and stored somewhere. And that can be a good or a bad thing.
“One of my big concerns right now,” executive producer Rick Smolan tells Zap2it, “is it seems like … it’s mostly governments and large corporations who see how unbelievably powerful this new ability to collect data about what’s happening in the world is going to be for controlling people, for selling people and for the worlds of business and politics.
“So I think the average person is paying no attention at all and thinks this doesn’t really matter … . No one is thinking about things that are being put in place that are going to affect generations of humanity. And I think right now is when we need to be actually figuring out how we want this all to work and who’s going to control it.”
The film looks at some of the more virtuous uses of big data, such as the digitizing of the human genome to target more effective treatments for disease or using the GPS locations of individual motorists to track traffic patterns and reroute cars to open roads, in essence turning your iPhone into an individual sensor in a global nervous system.
But of course, that data can also be used for more nefarious purposes. An insurance company can deny coverage to a person with a high likelihood for developing diabetes later in life or a police department can issue a ticket to a driver whose GPS app indicated they were speeding.
Yes, Big Brother is indeed watching and he’s remembering everything he sees. But there’s good news, the film asserts: We can be masters of our digital destiny. But there has to be rules.
“One of the questions people have when I talk to them about big data is, ‘Isn’t this just like another iterative stage? It’s a nice, cool improvement but it’s not like earth-shaking, not like the invention of the microprocessor,’ ” Smolan says. “And my argument is this is actually much bigger. You sort of need to have the microprocessor to get the computer. You need the computer to have the Internet. You need the Internet to have big data. And you need all of these things to be in place. And it’s almost like we’re watching the planet evolve a nervous system. It’s really fascinating to think this is the way cities are coming alive. …”
“But this world of data and sensors as it’s becoming almost free and instant, is giving us a real-time feedback loop that hopefully will allow us to address some of these huge challenges that we’re facing.”