Will the Arts save us from Big Data?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: November 17th 2013

Data MiningWe live in a time where data storage costs almost nothing. As a result, we store everything. Not just our creation of tweets, pages, posts, and emails, but everything about our activity on the Internet. The sites we visit, the searches we make, the spaces on the screen we click, the links we follow and on and on. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Geo-Listening, a tool that captures the social media streams coming from schools, this was one small example of the new emergence of data analysis as a growing field. How do we make sense of “Big Data?” The answer, I believe, may lie in the fine arts.


The old saying is, of course, a picture is worth a thousand words. Nowhere is that more evident (for me) than in infographics. I simply love these things. Why? Because I think they show in simplistic ways how to interpret masses of information. As one simple example, want to know where people live in the US? Have a look at this link.

Or here are other simple infographics which represent a lot of data analysis.

At a conference in 2010 Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated that “every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.”Technology in the hands

“Let me repeat that: we create as much information in two days now as we did from the dawn of man through 2003.

“The real issue is user-generated content,” Schmidt said. He noted that pictures, instant messages, and tweets all add to this.
Naturally, all of this information helps Google. But he cautioned that just because companies like his can do all sorts of things with this information, the more pressing question now is if they should. Schmidt noted that while technology is neutral, he doesn’t believe people are ready for what’s coming.

“I spend most of my time assuming the world is not ready for the technology revolution that will be happening to them soon,” Schmidt said.”

Posted Aug 4, 2010 by MG Siegler (@parislemon

How will we make sense of all that data? Again I wrote recently about the potential ethical implications of what Schmidt says, but also there is great richness in the data. How will we actually make sense of it?
Thoughts of how to pursue that question were triggered by a talk from Paul Terry last week. In a fascinating presentation, he stated that visualization of data is an exploding field and that if you had a way to visualize big data you could make $100-200M in Silicon Valley right now.

This is where I feel the arts come in. We need to reaffirm that beauty and simplicity of the arts as a form of communications. Whether aesthetic, analytic, or emotional, the arts communicates complex messages in simple ways. When it comes to interpreting exabytes of data, perhaps analytics and analysis will be at the crunching phase, but arts may be the piece that communicates the outcomes. If not, how can we possibly believe we can interpret such massive amounts of data?

I used infograhics as one example above and I realize that people might say that infographics are not art. But my message is that we need to think about what graphic or artistic representations may help us make sense of data and how will we continue to reaffirm the value of the arts in schools? The arts aren’t a frill, they are a necessity.

We were at an amazing Remembrance Ceremony at Queen Elizabeth Secondary recently. How did students try to communicate the horrors of war? They did it in powerful ways through poetry, images, and song. It was a moving, emotional, and outstanding way to help remind us Lest We Forget. I didn’t need to see any stats or data analysis to remind me of the horrors, all I needed was the teenager that sang and the images I saw.

Abstract background notes and splatterAs we begin to interpret the masses of data we are so voraciously gathering for purposes yet undefined, we need to be reminded that the arts will forever remain one of the most important and powerful ways to communicate. As Ernest Boyer said in his great paper on community, when the scientists at Cape Canaveral saw their rockets blast into space, they didn’t say “wow, look all my formulas and calculations worked” they simply said “that’s beautiful.” A reminder to us all that that arts do indeed matter and should remain central to how we communicate and express ourselves as we come to grapple with vast amounts of data that we are building upon every day.

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