Film Review: The Human Face of Big Data
The Human Face of Big Data
Sandy Smolan’s documentary plays at times like an infomercial for Big Data—the technological phenomenon by which the millions of bits of information produced by quantifiable activity is changing the way we work and live. But it’s an elegantly produced and compelling infomercial: Through beautiful data simulations and an endless supply of talking head visionaries—including Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and former Microsoft scientist Nathan Myhrvold—Smolan conveys the idea that Big Data can indeed improve our lives. We learn about how tracking Google searches and other online interactions can help forecast flu breakouts, how broad patterns of biometrics can help prevent infections in neonatal intensive care units, and how reading our genes can help determine the diseases to which we’re susceptible.
The constant stream of interviews and simulations can often seem formless, but it’s also hard not to be captivated by much of this film: Watching, for example, the throb of text message activity in Amsterdam, represented here by rhythmic bars of light, or a heat map representing all the flights in the United States over a day, makes not just a logical case for Big Data, but an aesthetic one for it.
The drawbacks aren’t ignored, to be sure; as one interviewee notes, any technology that has this huge a positive effect on our lives can also have a massive negative effect. And civil libertarians and other watchdogs have sounded alarms over what’s being done with our data—with our Facebook interactions, our Google searches, our emails, our commuting patterns. Still, it’s hard not to feel that these concerns are given relatively short shrift. As the title indicates, this film very much wants us to see Big Data as our friend. It makes a good case, but it’s only part of the picture.