We only seem to talk about big data in terms of predicting buying patterns and targeting consumers. This kind of data analysis is about making invisible patterns visible and transferring information from much larger scales of existence into the scale of human understanding. Climate and the warming of the biosphere may be the most important way we use big data techniques. Amidst the report from the NY Times that 2014 was the hottest year since 1880, when they began to keep records, was this observation:
“February 1985 was the last time global surface temperatures fell below the 20th century average for a given month, meaning that no one younger than 30 has ever lived through a below average month. The last full year that was colder than the 20th century average was 1976.”
We've marked the successive generations based on cultural markers and consuming patterns. But this under-30 generation is the first to experience a specific kind of earth. In this earth, there are no “below average” temperatures. Of course, no one experiences an “average temperature.” One day will be colder than another, and a particular day will be the coldest one ever experienced. But this generation will live out their lives in a fundamentally different possibility space.
What the data tells us is that the set of possible temperatures is slowly moving into a higher range. It's something we can can contemplate in our understanding, but not something we can directly experience. This is the difficulty of direct action with regard to global warming. When we drive our cars, or build a fire in the fireplace it appears to have no effect whatsoever on climate. It's only when you scale it up to the whole human species across the entire planet that the effects are visible. And only then indirectly, using a complex array of sensors, a large historical data set, and a sophisticated simulation of earth's climate.
Hollywood teaches us that there is supposed to be a large explosive event that marks the turning point with climate. We perpetually imagine that event to be in the future, as though it were a ticking time bomb. There's always time for the hero to intercede and change the course of history. One day, we look up from our newspapers and realize that every human under 30 years of age is already living in that permanently changed world. The possibility of that particular kind of cold day has been foreclosed. It wasn't ever a change that we would directly feel or experience that we should have been looking for; it was a change in what it was possible to experience.