Big Data, No Data, and Metadata

Near-universal consensus has it that, sometime around 9/11, the world passed from the Age of Aquarius, through some vernal equinox noticed by few, straight into the Age of Big Data. That passage brought about a seismic epistemological shift. To be sure, any links to the events surrounding 9/11 are coincidental: the real reason for this transition was the coming of age of enabling technology. To that extent, whatever one may want to think of 9/11 conspiracy theorists conjecturing about the tragic events as having been brought on, or at least been aided and abetted, by someone or something other than al Quaeda: the acts and omissions after 9/11 point to its utility for the advancement of surveillance, for which political and civic tolerance could otherwise not have been expected. Very much the same goes for the speed by which authorizing legislation was whipped through the formalities of democratic rule-making processes, purportedly under the influence of those events. But such a pounce on an opportunity of this magnitude had no doubt have to have been incubated for quite some time, in lockstep with deep insights into the progress of technology and entirely independent of whatever statistically unpredictable Black Swan event would one day trigger its sudden political viability. It did not matter which event or who or what would cause it. That, in all likelihood, was indeed not known, and it did not need to be known. It was, in Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal dictum, one of the “known unknowns.”

The extent of surveillance capabilities that became available as a result to the U.S. government and to the other “Five Eyes” Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand that do not spy on each other (at least in theory and at least for now) and otherwise cooperate to secure the endurance of occidental civilization would have been every totalitarian regime’s wet dream. Perhaps one day, cloning technology may enable resurrection of Feliks Dzierżyński’s or Lawrentii Beria’s DNA, or Heinrich Himmler’s, Erich Mielke’s or Klemens Metternich’s, not to mention Joseph Fouché’s or Philipp II’s or Kang Sheng’s or Pol Pot’s – and I predict the greatest possible unanimity of consensus among all these distinguished oppressors of the unrestrained human mind: no government can ever be secure of power without surveillance. So, does it really matter whether the chicken or the egg existed first, whether surveillance technology eviscerates pre-existing democratic structures and aspirations (those uncontrollable by powers that be) or whether it is created by a totalitarian ambition already thus entrenched? The bottom line remains crisp and clear: information is power.