When approaching both the challenges and opportunities posed by big data in the IT space, it’s popular to try and quantify just how much data the world is generating on a daily basis.

According to IBM Corp. it’s about 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. For those of you not up on your logarithmic scales, a quintillion is a 1 followed by 19 0s, or perhaps better expressed as 1 billion times 10 billion. It’s a big number.

Another angle is to compare the amount of data created in more recent times to eras of the past – 90 per cent of data ever created has been created in the last two years, according to IBM. At the Ideacity conference in Toronto,  speaker Rick Smolan put it this way: every day an average person is exposed to more data than someone who lived in the 15th century was exposed to in their private lives.

So what? Just quantifying the amount of data flowing around our networked world doesn’t really tell us anything. We may pull out our hair trying to wrap our mind around the size of the numbers involved, but it doesn’t really give us insight into what the big data revolution really means or where it’s going. After all, all those bytes of information being generated could be merely to compare my score in Angry Birds to other players rather than anything actually useful.

But at Ideacity, three speakers had a better way to approach the impact of the big data age. The best thing is they didn’t even have to use the words “quintillion” or “exabyte” when doing so.

Don Tapscott – Big data is changing the way we learn

Author Don Tapscott saying access to big data is changing the way the millenial generation learns.
Author Don Tapscott saying access to big data is changing the way the millennial generation learns.

Tapscott, the well-known organizational strategist who lives in Toronto, opened up his session by rehashing all the worst complaints about the millennial generation. They are entitled, they have no attention span, they are dumb – then he refuted that.

“They are not the dumbest generation, they are the smartest generation by the measure of smartness – it’s called IQ,” he says. University graduation rates are also climbing and when polled people even respond that given the choice, they’d rather be smarter  instead of better looking.

Tapscott’s point is that the younger generation has changed how it learns, and that change has actually been a benefit. In his 1997 book Growing Up Digital Tapscott refers to millennials as the Net Generation because it is the first to experience childhood with access to the Internet. Considering that a critical period of brain development occurs between 8 and 18, people exposed to the Internet during that age are going to be differently wired than their parents who were exposed to more passive media like television.

“If you spend a significant amount of time being the actor, the initiator, the organizer, then you can get a certain type of brain,” he says.

Smart young people don’t read books any more to educate themselves, Tapscott says, but find the relevant information across a wide variety of sources by using digital technology. Rather than absorb the narrative set by someone else while learning, they are building their own understanding of the subject. In the meantime, millennials are also learning how to be better at multi-tasking.

“This is the first time ever that the kids know more about learning than the teachers,” he says. “That the young people coming into the workforce have better tools than exist in our organizations.”

Rick Smolan – The human face of big data

Rick Smolan seeks to tell the story of big data using photography in his latest book.

Known for his “Day in the life” photography books, Rick Smolan was intrigued in the big data trend after having a conversation with Marissa Mayer, now the CEO of Yahoo. “We’re watching the planet develop a nervous system,” she said to him.

Since then Smolan has collaborated with 100 photographers, sending them to 30 countries around the world to visualize big data. The resulting work, a book and e-book, The Human Face of Big Data he matches photos with statements about what big data trends mean for society. One photo shows angered Greek protesters amassed and protesting the country’s recent austerity measures. Another shows elderly women in a swimming pool, wearing foam reindeer antlers. They’re also wearing a bracelet developed by IBM that will predict they risk a injurious fall up to two days before it happens, helping them to live independently for longer.

Each page brings to light a new example of how big data could change the world, illustrated with a large glossy photo print. From power consumption to earthquake detection, it only takes flipping through a few pages to see how big data is a revolution. Or perhaps it’s better described with Smolan’s explanation of big data to his 10-year-old son:

“Imagine your whole life you see through one eye and then suddenly you open a second eye. You can see things in front of you, but still can’t discern that third dimension,” he says. “Our technology is allowing us to open a thousand eyes.”

Bruce Duncan – You are big data

Bruce Duncan demonstrates Bina48, a robot designed to hold natural conversations with people.
Bruce Duncan demonstrates Bina48, a robot designed to hold natural conversations with people.

Perhaps the most profound exploration of the big data trend at Ideacity came from Bruce Duncan, managing director of the Tersem Movement Foundation Inc. He is asking people to curate their own digital data signatures into a “mind file” that will be used to create a digital avatar that interacts with others and conveys that individual’s attitudes, values, mannerisms, and beliefs. In fact you can get started right now on Lifenaut if you think that sounds like fun.

It’s the initial exploration as to how we might extend human life beyond the confines of our body and into digital technology, Duncan says. The Internet is actually upgrading the way our brains work and helping them to evolve to a new level by “connecting all of our neo-cortexes.”

Imagine a future where you end your day by talking with other versions of yourself that had different experiences elsewhere in the world (or beyond). It’d be a perfect way to learn about other topics because you are the most ideal person to determine what’s important to yourself.


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