Around 90 per cent of the data in the world was created in last two years; a fact astonishing in and of itself, but also a clear justification for Somerset House’s new exhibition on data and how it is visualised.
The key takeaway of ‘Big Bang Data’ is that we are collecting and generating more information than ever before, both because we can and because doing so has immense value to social scientists, researchers, governments and all of us in enhancing our understanding of the world. If that sounds like a dry theme, stay with me; this is a genuinely thought-provoking and entertaining exhibition and well worth the ticket price. Not to mention that the setting is particularly gorgeous over the festive period.
Bringing together selfies, CCTV footage and doctored social media profiles with examples of the most outré wearable tech – for humans and pets, no less – it’s a colourful exploration of how data is captured, what we can learn from it, and the way that what is quantifiable can also be surprisingly beautiful.
Not that it’s all so cerebral; in fact much of what is on show is rather amusing. The curators have gathered together dozens of whimsical, counter-intuitive installations or artworks created by mining data in some madcap fashion or other. So there’s a reworking of Tetris depicting the scale of Britain’s national debt, a project whereby an artist produced annual reports on his own life – in the 90s, you learn, he made 17 trips abroad, eight of which were to Europe – and a series meticulously breaking down popular films like ‘Jaws’ into second by second collages.
There’s James Bridle’s amusing book ‘Where the F*** was I’, made up of information recorded on his iPhone after it emerged that Apple was quietly collecting this data, and a project titled ‘I Know Where Your Cat Lives’ visualising the locations of a million cats around the world based on photos freely shared and geotagged on sites like Instagram.
Meanwhile, a series of colourful illuminated globes record different demographic and social trends; one maps IP addresses per capita, another plots the density of mobile phones in different countries. A third charts credit ratings from Moody’s and Standard and Poor. The point is well made; you’d probably ignore this data in a spreadsheet or contained in a wordy report, but rendered in an aesthetically engaging way you can’t take your eyes off it.
It’s revelatory, too. A Carrie Matheson style mind-map points you to the locations of cables across London, laid underground and out of sight but integral to our ability to communicate and share all this data. You learn that the first submarine cables were laid in the 1870s, linking all five continents, while a world map pinpoints where in our deep oceans these subterranean connectors cluster. And perhaps the most startling exhibit of all is an anti-slavery poster from 1785, which aimed to draw attention to the abolitionist cause by documenting in a simple diagram the inhumane conditions on board a slave ship ‘The Brookes’.
As the exhibition reminds us, data is reshaping everything we do; enabling us to better connect and self-evaluate, but also giving those who might use it for nefarious purposes tremendous power. One of the most memorable displays is a series of sculptured faces created off the back of DNA samples taken from the most mundane of items – chewing gum and cigarette butts. It’s a disturbing, even distressing reminder of how much personal, private information we freely give away, every single second of the day, and rams home the fact that we are barely in control of all this data. The surveillance society, the exhibition intones with the help of clips from the news and references to Edward Snowden, is not necessarily your friend.
Nevertheless, Big Bang Data ends on a positive note, highlighting how this information can be used for the common good, and how we can harness it to become better informed citizens. The last major exhibit is a planetarium-style visualisation of the global stock market and the flow of money. Given the subject matter, it shouldn’t be so arresting, but it is. Which is arguably true of the whole exhibition.
‘Big Bang Data’ is on at Somerset House until 28 February.