Jan. 2 2013 12:56 AM

A cautious endorsement of the coffee-table book on the new age of mass information

Data nerd A.J. Jacobs
Photo by Michael Cogliantry 2012/
The Human Face of Big Data

Perhaps you're sitting there with a gift card in hand, or an e-card in your inbox. This hypothetical voucher is somewhere between $30 and $50, and you're at a loss for how to spend it. All the media you consume these days—the books, the movies, the music—you already obtain digitally via a cloud service or perhaps through, let's not say illegal, but Swedish means. You're the giftee for whom it's impossible to shop but who struggles to pick out his or her own presents. 

For the sake of propping up the premise of this column, let's also assume that you have remarkably similar interests and tastes as me: a fascination (bordering on paranoid obsession) with emerging technology and immense information systems. Succinctly put, you're a data nerd with a weakness for photo-journalism and infographics. Where you're unlike me is that you didn't score a free review copy of The Human Face of Big Data, a coffee-table book edited by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt that, with the assistance of a couple of cinder blocks, itself could serve as a coffee table. 

Those who say dead-tree books are dead have not considered the longevity of the coffee-table book. Coffee, as a beverage, is in no danger of obsolescence, and a virtual coffee table is totally useless in supporting the weight of the new novelty mug you also received for Christmas ("What do we want? Coffee! When do we want it? I'll fucking cut you!"). And we're a long way away from the day when the average electronics consumer can afford to purchase a 14-by-11-inch tablet for the sole purpose of setting it out to entertain guests while slipping into something more comfortable (such as the UCSD sweatpants you also scored for Christmas). And just as sweatpants would be impossible to digitally synthesize, coffee-table books will be relevant for years to come because of their size and aesthetic. 

An important warning: The book diverges from traditional publishing in that it's subsidized by businesses, chiefly EMC Corporation, which trades in so-called Big Data. FedEx and Cisco were also major sponsors. As a result, the content presents a peachy vision of the future and commercial possibilities, though it is not entirely without its caveats. But the bias, IMHO, is worth overlooking.

What is Big Data? It's not the late Andrew Breitbart's sensational blog on mathematics. The term describes the massive amounts of information we're generating—five exabytes (a million gigabytes) every two days, as Google chairperson Eric Schmidt is quoted in the book. Inherent in the concept is the prediction that humankind will undergo a total societal evolution in the scarily near future. Smolan flat-out argues in the introduction that we're creating a nervous system for the planet, or, in fact, we already have. In the beginning, the position comes across as technological-singularity fantasy, but by the time you're halfway through the 220-pager, you realize we're much further along than you assumed.

The book focuses on innovation, though that's an awfully gentle word for it—from the La Jolla genomics pioneer who's synthesizing algae and bacteria (posed in a portrait photo before balloon-tubes of green miracle goo) to Google's self-driving cars, which are now allowed on roads in California. The gamut is covered: healthcare, family life, journalism, law enforcement, marketing, agriculture, third-world development, history. It features essays from the likes of angel investor Esther Dyson, New York Times bestseller and FitBit addict A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) and Future Crimes Institute founder Marc Goodman. The message overall is that privacy is a concept on the way out and before long, we'll know everything about everything. 

It's also filled with fun facts, "fun" being another awfully gentle word: The average "digital birth" of an American child (when they develop an online presence) is six months. After three years at the Internet Archive, employees get a waist-high, terracotta soldier designed in their likenesses. According to 16 years' worth of data collected by wedding site The Knot.com, couples who ask for charity donations instead of gifts are more likely to receive more expensive presents.

The book's greatest success is in turning abstract concepts and cold numbers into striking images and photography. You get a glimpse of WikiLeaks' underground bunker, a map tracing the inefficient routing of household recyclables, the two-story-tall monitors at New York City's "Real Time Crime Center." The major social-media sites are broken down into sprawling graphics, with Google, for example, illustrated as an octo-elephant, a tentacled beast with a suction cup for every element of existence and a memory that never forgets. 

The Human Face of Big Data, which is also available for iPad for $3 if you don't have a gift card, is the first coffee-table book I've read from start to finish. Partly that's because I decided to review it, but mostly because it's the book I've hoped someone would compile for a long time and I hope someone will compile again in about five or 10 years, when all of it seems as ancient as 3.5-inch floppy disks and Netscape.

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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