PROJECT M
 
PROJECT M
Rick Smolan

Watching the world develop a nervous system

You thought the Internet was big. But it’s not as big as big data, the global information network that is transforming the world

Watching the world develop a nervous system

You thought the Internet was big. But it’s not as big as big data, the global information network that is transforming the world


 “From the beginning of recorded time until 2003, we created 5 exabytes (5 billion gigabytes) of data. In 2011, the same amount was created every two days. By 2013, it’s expected that the time will shrink to 10 minutes.” Photographer Rick Smolan tells PROJECT M how he captured the rapidly changing face of the data revolution.

PROJECT M

Where did you get the idea to put together a book on big data*?

Rick Smolan

I had some experience in putting together large-scale projects with the “Day in the Life” series of books. I found it fascinating to gather a group of journalists from around the world to really explore a place in as much detail as possible. After exploring different countries, I set up my own production company with my wife, and we started to focus on more technological themes. A couple of years ago, I found myself looking for a new subject. I was going to TED conferences and seeing some interesting stuff, but there wasn’t anything that really got my creative juices flowing. And then [Yahoo CEO] Marissa Mayer mentioned big data to me. I told her, “I’m a photographer. I don’t really think that sounds like something for me.” Then she said you could compare it to the planet developing a nervous system. That got my attention.

PROJECT M

It’s still quite an abstract topic, though.

Rick Smolan

We spent 18 months trying to figure out how to tell the story, to see if we could capture this transformation in the form of photographic essays. A lot of publishers were very dubious, so we decided to self-publish the book.

PROJECT M

How do you explain big data?

Rick Smolan

Thanks to my 10-year-old son, at some point I hit upon an analogy. One night he asked me why I was always talking about big data whenever I was on the phone – what did it mean? I struggled to come up with something that would make sense to him and then said, “Imagine if, for your whole life, you had only been looking through one eye, and then scientists allow you to open up a second eye. All of a sudden you’re not just getting more vision, you’re getting a different dimension, a whole new perspective.” He told me how cool that was and asked whether we could also open up a third or fourth eye, or even a thousand eyes. And that’s exactly what’s happening now.

PROJECT M

Which areas of our lives do you think will be most affected?

Rick Smolan

For me, the medical and healthcare aspect was particularly interesting. By the time we become ill, our body has often been giving off signs that something isn’t quite right for some time. Until recently, we just haven’t had the means of measuring ourselves and creating a baseline for own body. But things are changing. When Steve Jobs had his DNA sequenced five years ago, it cost $100,000. Today, it’s $3,000. In five years’ time, it might well be $50 at your local pharmacy. And then you’ve got wearable devices, such as the UP wristband, that you can use to track your own exercise, diet and sleep patterns. It’s the ‘gamification’ of health.

PROJECT M

Are you worried about what happens with all this data?

Rick Smolan

I am worried that, for the most part, it seems to be governments and large companies who are realizing the value of it. I don’t think the average person should say that they don’t really care about their personal information. It’s naïve to think there’s no value to it, and I think we should have more of a say in what happens with our data.

PROJECT M

Do you think it’s a topic that is properly understood by the general public?

Rick Smolan

When we started with this book, a lot of people weren’t familiar with the idea of big data. But during the last year or two, it has certainly entered the public agenda. It’s really growing on a daily basis. I must admit that, initially, I thought it was a lot of marketing hype created by technology companies to suit their own needs. Now there’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to be a thousand times more influential on our species than the Internet has been – and the Internet has been pretty damn dramatic. It’s an evolution.

We needed to have microprocessors to build computers. Then we needed computers to build the Internet. Now we need the Internet, its worldwide network, to form the basis of big data. All these devices are now talking to each other, and they change their behavior based on their interactions. I think that 2013 will come to be known as a point of demarcation – before big data and after. It’s going to be such a huge part of how everything works. There’s almost no field you can think of where it’s not already having some sort of impact.

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