We’re still in the cave man era of Big Data, say filmmakers behind new documentary

caveman fast food tray

Will my fossilized bones be studied? Will my penned journal survive millenniums? How will today’s tech be remembered? These are the questions that popped into my head after watching The Human Face of Big Data, a book-turned documentary that ponders the analytics age and its impact on humanity. The film debuts on PBS Wednesday, February 24 at 10 pm ET. 

Each generation is the future’s fossil. From tomorrow’s perspective, you and I are cavemen. Yet no matter how far back we travel in time, the impact of each generation is felt far into modernity. Indeed, we need the cavemen to establish, explore and extrapolate with intent. As posterity’s cavemen, we must approach Big Data with contemplative measure.

As a photojournalist who has documented the decades’ biggest technology leaps at their onset, Rick Smolan knows we’re in the caveman era of Big Data, saying in the future “much of what amazes us today will seem primitive and crude.” The force behind The Human Face of Big Data book, published in 2012, Rick sparked public interest in the topic with visual stimulation. A massive coffee table reader, The Human Face of Big Data made John Doe the center of discussion, moving the story beyond object storage and converged infrastructure. (Read my book review here.) 

Now with sibling filmmaker Sandy Smolan, John Doe’s story gets a double shot of visual depth. Calling it the hardest project he’s worked on, Sandy labored over “finding a schematic thread to corral all this information into a focused narrative, and give it structure,” he said in a phone interview. An arduous task because of the immeasurable ways in which Big Data affects every aspect of life. Digitizing the world means the rise of artificial intelligence, intrusive government surveillance, extended lifespans and omniscient advertisements. Big Data’s reach into every corner of civilization is the very reason why its consequential applications must be considered.

Awe and terror


“The reactions we get [with the film] are awe and terror, which is what we wanted,” explained Sandy. He went on to note Big Data’s most historic moments since the book hit shelves, citing retailer Target Corp.’s breach exposing millions of credit card details, and Eric Snowden’s revelation of a U.S. government agency tapping into citizen activity through digital doorways. These developments have raised John Doe’s awareness on Big Data’s potential and pitfalls, hopefully encouraging each of us to play a productive role in how Big Data is remembered.

A theme discussed in The Human Face of Big Data is our species’ power to use data for good or evil. I followed up with one of the film’s interviewees, Shwetak Patel, MacArthur Fellow and inventor of a series of sensor technology systems, to discuss responsible ways we can move forward in applying Big Data to the world’s biggest economic, agricultural and social institutions. His quick and succinct answer is data transparency.

“If we could make data transparent to the users, so they knew where it came from, where it went, and how it was being used, then I think there would be a lot more trust in the system,” Patel said.   

One avenue towards more transparency could be what Rick calls a Data Bill of Rights, with the default set to OFF. “Right now most people are completely unaware of how much data is being collected about them every second of the day,” he said.

“My hope is that our project… will spark an informed global conversation about a set of technologies I’m convinced is going to change the fabric of life on earth in ways we are only beginning to understand.”

Watch the trailer below.

photo credit: Banksy’s caveman via photopin (license)