Humanized Space Beyond the Big Data: An Interview with Viktor Mayer-Sch?nberger

  • Update:2014-09-02
  • Interviewed by Wang Yun
 Zhuangshi : There are so many interesting stories in your book Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, for example the story of “athfinder of the Seas”Matthew Fontaine Maury in Chapter 5, the story of Luis von Ahn in Chapter 7 and the film Minority Report in Chapter 8. These examples make the reading of the book an interesting journey. How much time was spent writing this book? Where did you find the many examples throughout history? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: My co-author Kenn Cukier and I spent four years developing and writing “ig Data” It took a significant amount of time to find the right stories and cases. Some we stumbled over by accident, but for many others we actively searched for many months. And we aimed to talk to all people involved in the examples directly if we could, and confirm the facts and get more details. More importantly perhaps than what examples we did use are the long list of examples we did not use, because they did not fit perfectly, or because the facts that we had read in articles were not accurate, or because we could not get all the facts confirmed. So we were very tough in filtering out examples and tried to keep only the ones that we felt really, truly offered value to the reader. Zhuangshi : According to your book, big data is leading to a great transformation—ur society and its operation are more and more based on the numbers. Does there exist any novel or fictional work about the big data? Or do you know if there is anybody studying the big data within the field of art or culture? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: On the one hand, there is a rapidly growing field in the humanities that uses big data to shed new insights into literature, history, and arts. Often called “igital humanities”this is utterly fascinating, as more and more of humanities turns into what is essential a social science. At the same token authors and artists have written about big data like predictions. Take US science fiction writer Isaac Asimov for instance and his “oundation”series books. And big data visualizations have become recognized art objects, as demonstrated by a recent exhibit of the famous Serpentine Gallery in London. Zhuangshi : As you mentioned in the book, big data will be a source of new economic value and innovation and it is bringing three shifts including: 1) we can analyze far more data; 2) loosen up our desire for exactitude; 3) a move away from the age-old search for causality. Quite obviously, big data is changing our way of thinking like any technological revolution or invention in human history. With the help of big data, the soldier in Source Code might not have had to go through numerous time travels to find the criminal. The latest movie Her directed by Spike Jones showing people a future environment won the “est Future Vision”of Wallpaper. In the movie, as the costume designer Casey Storm said, “here is no jeans, so sportswear, no belts and no ties” What do you imagine the life style big data might bring to us? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: That’ hard to predict. My sense is that big data will help us reflect more on the need to lead a sustainable life, both individually and on a societal level. So we’l be more conscious of the impact our actions have on the environment, and on others, as with big data the ultimate negative consequences of our behavior can be predicted. At the same time, in all of this desire to do the right thing, and to be good, we may see a youth counter-culture develop that rebels against rationality (perhaps before embracing it in middle age) and advocates to decide against predictions. This is important because true creativity cannot be predicted with big data, and thus to enable true creativity we may need to keep a space open and available to act in defiance of what the data says, much as we suggest in the final chapter of the book. Zhuangshi : As an expert of big data, did you use it to solve problems in your own life? How does big data influence your own life? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: I am using big data daily: when I search the Internet, order books from Amazon (and other ecommerce sellers), and use Google translate to see what readers in China think about our book. But I have gone further, too, and had 23andme analyze my DNA to help me better see what medical conditions I might develop in the future given my specific genetic data. Zhuangshi : What are your own areas of interest in the arena of architecture and design? Can you give us an example of a piece of design (it could be product design, fashion design, industrial design or graphic design) or architecture representing the era of big data? Do you have a favorite architectural work or design work? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Yes, I am a modernist, and have a very modern summerhouse in Austria. I like minimal, highly functional design. Zaha Hadid’ work on parametric architecture for instance is quite close to big data thinking. And of course when I come to China I have lots of opportunities to see design and architecture that pushes the envelope. Zhuangshi : What about the cost and threshold to assemble big data in the era of big data? Does big data imply a more rational and cold social structure since the majority of the decisions would be made through data, and which do you think will shake the value base of the traditional society? Do you think it will influence the society’ value standard away from human aspects? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Not necessarily. We have to ask ourselves as humanity what we really can do better than computers. It certainly is not calculating figures and retrieving data. So to preserve our own species, our very existence we need to emphasize the original, the irrational, the things that cannot be predicted even with the most data in the world. We need to create and defend a space for the human –not because it is cool, but because it is essential for long-term self-preservation as a species. Zhuangshi : What kind of influence might big data bring to the design profession? Do you think “nformation visualization”will become an even more important tendency? Until now design is still a comparatively subjective area, even though the method of marketing investigation tried to produce a kind of unitized design production pattern and design solution in the history, it wasn’ so successful. In the era of big data, how to differentiate the relationship between the group characteristic and individual characteristic? What is your opinion on Steven Jobs who did not do marketing investigation; instead what Jobs believed was customer experience while his grasp of the customer experience was totally based on his own experience. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: I hope that big data will unmask some of the self-styled experts as just being eloquent pontificators with little substance. My hope is that big data will help us understand that good design is based on good ideas that can be if not predicted then at least recognized and understood as such through big data analysis. You see: I am an eternal optimist.

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