We live in a world where we are constantly connected to technology. Whether it’s the humble PC, the ever-present smartphone, or the latest glitzy wearable, technology has had a huge impact. It has increased our access to information, to each other, and even to our own bodies. Along with all that technology comes data; 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day, from everything from status updates to bank transfers. It is on this data that Somerset House has based their new exhibition, Big Bang Data.
The exhibit opens by looking at the physicality of data, first in the form of the behemoth data centres that form the foundation of the internet. We have such familiarity with the internet, but to see it as rows of metal boxes, flashing lights, and neat cables paints a very different picture. This physical representation of the internet harkens back to the earlier days of the technological era, where everything was bigger and bulkier. This is perfectly represented via the exhibit’s data storage timeline; starting back in the 1950s, with paper punch cards that could hold a mere 80 bytes, moving through to magnetic tape and the iconic floppy disks of our childhood, and finishing with the ubiquitous USB stick (which holds 100,000 times more data than the punch cards did). There’s even an example of using DNA to store data at 700 terabytes of data per gram!
Where the exhibit comes into its own, though, is in the interpretation and representation of data. This is where the exhibit moves away from simply scientific history, and into art and intrigue. Some of these pieces are simply representations of data, such as a series of glowing globes showing different phenomenon on an international scale, or a starry night sky that is actually a real-time representation of the financial markets. However, the vast majority of the exhibits are inspired by data collected from everyday lives. In the past decade, the tide has turned, with the majority of data no longer being collected from corporate and academic sources, but from individuals just going about their lives.
This “everyday” data creates some truly intriguing creations. One of my favourites is #oneSecond, a set of books that immortalises one single second (09/10/2012 at 14:47:36 GMT, to be precise) on Twitter, chronicling each and every of the 5522 tweets that was posted then, from the mundane and hilarious to the deadly serious. Or for pet lovers, there’s the very cute I Know Where Your Cat Lives, an interactive global map showing publicly available and geotagged pictures of cats.
Whilst the exhibit definitely highlights the endless possibilities this vast pool of data presents, it does not neglect to show the downsides. Most obviously, it details Edward Snowden’s exposé of the NSA’s personal data surveillance in a series of videos. The Transparency Grenade is a device that also pays homage to the importance of information in possible warfare; a device equipped with a tiny computer, microphone and wireless antenna, it can be used to capture nearly any data, and then later, when one decides to “pull the pin”, release it all on a public online map (creating an “explosion” at the location).
Big Bang Data shows the world behind the smartphone screen, and opens you up to a world of information and possibilities. Too often in the media we are berated for our device and data use, with videos, images, and articles trying to demonstrate the “emptiness” of our technologically enriched lives (yes, we know we look ridiculous when you photoshop away our phones – we’d also look ridiculous if you photoshopped away our meals, but no one questions the utility of food). The exhibition does not shy away from confronting the possible dangers of the colossal amount of data we produce, but it also invites us to look at the beauty of it, and for that I would recommend it to everyone who is either technologically or artistically minded to enjoy.
This piece was first published in the Autumn 2015 issue of RCSU Broadsheet, the Royal College of Science Union’s magazine focussing on science, society, and the arts.
Big Bang Data is at Somerset House until the 28th February 2015, with late night openings on Thursdays and Fridays.