Breathless from the fumes of the data exhaust

Can one person be in three places at once? The most requested superpower among Foo Campers seems to be time travel.

Maybe it’s because with a dozen or more amazing things going on at once we’d like to loop round at the end of every day and do it all over again. With only one me at a time, I feel buyer’s remorse wherever I choose to be.

But if I haven’t yet collided with my parallel self moving from session to session then I certainly have bumped repeatedly into the same topics, with a new and fascinating twist every time.

  • The joy of making things – printing 3d heads, cutting high-performance code, playing musically with fire
  • Big data (how big is big? Big enough that robust, unexpected patterns can emerge)
  • Other big stuff perceived to be broken: education, privacy, the economy, cities, the planet.

Can we fix it? In the words of Barack Obama and Bob the Builder, Yes We Can. For America. Just give us a bigger data set and smarter algorithms. Because to a child with a hammer everything looks like a nail, and this hammer is called Hadoop.

The geeks triumphant, but also increasingly self-aware. Here on O’Reilly’s Sebastopol campus are 250 or so smart women and men. They’re self-effacing and self-quantifying in equal measures, alert – if not always with ready solutions – to issues of race, gender, absolute and relative poverty.

I’m typing this in a tent. A tent with excellent wifi. I’m awake so I check Twitter.

It’s 6:14am and the birds are calling me too. They want me to take my mobile phone outside and take pictures, maybe record an Audioboo. Why can’t I just enjoy the stillness? I have this auto-documentation sickness bad.

My need to record, to show off, is antipathetical to the “in the moment” spirit of Foo Camp, yet hyper-typical of our time.

The camera on my Android is one of a bundle of sensors thickening the data smog that surrounds us. With image recognition on the street and 3d sensing on your Kinect, every move you make is data.

Welcome to the Anthropocene, where our massed devices’ seeing rays burn heatmaps directly onto the landscape in a giant eye-tracking study of the world.

I cannot resist revisiting this picture: An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby.

I rehash my Latourian conceit that the mobile phone is the air pump of our age, and ask again, where in this picture are we?

Surely we’re the experimenter? That’s the most obvious place to look.

By 2023, if we project out the sector’s exponential growth, everyone in the world will work as a data scientist. “I can’t understand why people don’t just do what the data says!” I hear one of the vanguard cry.

I’m breathing the same air as coders of mythical power, people who create and fine-tune the world’s spam filters and retail recommendation engines. If they can move the dial by 0.5% their companies will make billions.

Only, sometimes we take on the role of horrified, yet admiring, onlookers.

We move to halt the march of gamification before it turns a generation of engaged learners into Skinner box-conditioned zombies.

Privacy urgently needs new social norms, not red-flag carriers holding back the pace of technology. It strikes me that the politicians are at once the best and worst people to make decisions on this matter. They have the legitimacy that the powers of commerce lack, yet the bubble in which they live divorces their experience from that of private citizens.

No one can observe the activity without changing the outcome, as Jane Jacobs showed with the porches and stoops of her New York neighbourhood. Increasing transparency and visibility in the city could alter its form and its inhabitants, for good or ill, in unforeseen ways.

And let’s not forget the eponymous bird in the air pump.

Under the glass, we are subject to constant surveillance. We get to be the centre of attention, but in return we give the experimenter the power to suck out the air at any moment. What happens the first time the networked city doesn’t work?

And we, the most ardent self-quantifiers, are the canaries in our own coalmine. If data exhaust turns to data exhaustion, some of our number will be the first to fall. They’ll be part of a long history of self-experimentation. Isaac Newton stuck a needle in his own eye.

So maybe we really are crossing our own time-streams to be thrice in the same picture, a trinity of scientist, spectator and subject. What I can’t be sure of is whether this construct is self-limiting.

If the geeks spin too fast does the system shut down like an engine with a centrifugal governor? Or does it free-wheel out of control?

Executive summary: I had a great time at Foo Camp and met some amazing people, every one of whom had interesting stuff to say or show. I’m indebted to Edd Dumbill for my golden ticket, and to Tim O’Reilly, Sara Winge and the rest of the team for making it all happen.  As Quinn Norton put it, “My favorite parts of Foocamp aren’t getting answers, but making the questions harder and more interesting.” You may also want to read Scott Burkun’s ‘What I learned at FOO Camp‘.

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