Friday, 21 December 2012

A Universe of Data is Not Enough

Colin Picker

Humans have always recorded information (or data). From early cave drawings to Edison’s phonograph cylinders to the photos and music on I-phones, data recordation and storage seems to be a human attribute. But today we live in furious period of data storage. That data today includes pictures, video, music, documents and records of almost every type of human activity and thought (though, a very large percentage is, as has always been the case, pornographic – there are even pornographic cave paintings).

Today that information is increasingly stored at the electronic level. In the future we can expect almost all data to be stored electronically, and even sub-atomically (utilising the smallest constituent parts of the universe). While occasionally we record over past recordings, we more and more produce data that will be archived, eventually producing archives that will be able to last forever—or at least until the end of the universe (assuming there will be such an end, more on that below). As our technological needs increase, more and more data is needed, more and more is therefore going to be stored. But, is there an upper limit to the amount of data that can be stored? I don’t mean the limit on a hard drive, or a very large data storage array. I wonder whether there is a theoretical limit imposed by the very nature of the universe.

I first started to think about such an upper limit when considering the non-existence of infinity (more on that later, though admittedly an unusual thought experiment for a law academic). In any event, my ruminations took me to a place and time where we, humanity, had already moved to store our data at the quantum level, utilising the smallest sub-atomic components to represent the zeros and ones of data (assuming the correctness of quantum limitations). One quark, or whatever will at that time be the smallest unit, would represent one piece of data; another quark, or its specific absence (a non-quark), would represent another piece of data. But, if the universe is finite in size and composition, then there are a finite number of quarks available for use from the existing matter of the universe—including that used in the memory portion of our brains and that which can be converted from the various forms of energy in the universe. There is therefore a finite amount of data that can be stored on that finite number of quarks. True, utilization of that large capacity is a long way off, but it is, critically, a finite long way off. Furthermore, once imagined, it then exists—and that limitation has some very significant metaphysical consequences.

One consequence ties in with my original concern about infinity. One way to consider numbers is that they only exist if they can be represented (in our memory, on paper, as data, as cave drawings, etc). But if there is a data limit on the total representations of numbers, then there is a limit on those numbers. In other words, there is a finite number of numbers that can be expressed, and hence that can exist, a number limited by the data storage capacity of the universe. True, it is a large number, but it is a finitely large number. In other words: not infinite.

But back to the data storage issue. Perhaps the most important consequence is that eventually, when we do hit that data storage capacity, all new knowledge has to displace some of the previously recorded knowledge. Thus, while the composition of that knowledge may change, it can never exceed the total finite storage space. Once replaced, the data will then be lost forever (assuming no duplication, which we should assume, for until we have eliminated all excess duplications there really is no storage problem). While much that will be lost at first will be inane, eventually all the inane and frivolous pieces of data and knowledge will have been deleted to make way for more serious and important information. What happens then? We will need to be careful about the creation of new data (including new memories), for it will then require us to make hard choices about what other data must be erased to make room for the new data.

So, every time you download an “app”, create a new document, take a photo on your camera and then download them to your hard drive or into some data cloud or other, you are hastening the day when we run out of data, and hence limit our collective collection of new knowledge. Maybe, like fossil fuel conservation, we need to start thinking about data conservation – not for us, but for our children. A good start would be to delete this comment from your computer and then to forget all about it.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Cyborg Cops, Googlers and Connectivism

Alexander Hayes

We have become the camera and it has become us. (Aryani, 2012)

©Marco de Angelis

I rarely leave my mobile phone out of physical reach or indeed earshot and it is almost always powered on. It has become my compass, calculator, calendar and main communication channel with literally thousands of contacts in my networked cloud.

You might agree that this is not dissimilar to your own current relationship with this disruptive technology, your personal electronic portfolio. It might also occur to you, upon reflection, the profound impact this technology is now having upon your communications with family, friends and work colleagues. At a stretch you might even acknowledge that your cell-phone is "closer" to you that you ever imagined possible a decade ago, and thus is, in relative terms, wearable.

Project Glass is a research and development program by Google to develop an augmented reality head-mounted display (HMD). The intended purpose of Project Glass products is the hands free display of information currently available to most smartphone users, allowing for interaction with the Internet via natural language voice commands.

Whilst we might recoil aghast at Steve Mann’s predictions as to our wearable, portable and existential future, we must also acknowledge that this consumption of hyper-connectivity is simply yet another transformation in humanity. Given that Project Glass now connects wearers en-mass and ostensibly ensures that they can continue with physical activity hands-free, it creates arguably one of the largest known veillance vehicles into previously unmapped territories that humans already frequent. A hands-free, fashionable and constantly connected technology positions the product well amongst the seemingly unending array of Google's seamless and integrated services.

It is notable that Google's CEO Eric Schmidt is attributed with publicly dismissing privacy concerns as unimportant or as old fashioned according to Dwyer:"When companies sell information for a living, privacy is not their priority."

Irrespective of what challenges Google now faces around its users' privacy, it seems evident that this body-worn technology is set to revolutionize the manner in which we will interact with each other in the not too distant future and conversely how others will interact with that open and captured data thereafter.

At a recent presentation, I expressed my own feelings of unease at the roll-out of body wearable technologies across the Australian Police Force, where officers are conducting trials of location-enabled body-worn cameras and digital video recorders as part of law enforcement activities not unlike what is already fully deployed in the US and UK.

At this brief cross-sector meeting of minds, of surveillance studies experts, academics, law enforcement officers and private investigators, was also an equal proportion of actors, artists, educational technologists and technology service providers. What was apparent from what might sound to be a dissimilar array of roles and occupations at this workshop was a unified interest in what this technology now poses for the law enforcement officer, for the jury and ultimately for either the victim or perpetrator. It became also very apparent at this workshop that in a crowd-filled public, the seemingly innocuous role that a cell-phone is now poised to facilitate, is, in fact an emergent omniscient inverse sousveillance.

I also spoke to cases of the use of the location enabled body worn cameras in sports, medicine, health sciences, utility services, agriculture, manufacturing, engineering, construction and transport to name but a few of the areas where these technologies are being used in an international education and training context. In many of these cases the premise for deployment of these technologies is to build upon and improve existing work practices, selected by seemingly well informed and trusted technical experts, substantially guided by organisational policy and secure data management plans pursuant.

The interoperability between these location-aware body worn technologies now opens new domains of socio-ethical consideration as to the affects that an always-on network will have on humanity as a whole.

Educators will need to shift to a networked learning theory for the digital age, a connectivism [11] so profound the very architectures of participation are set to become only but a loosely bound accreditation arrangement.

"It is widely understood that the area of digital technologies in education covers education through digital technologies. However, it must also, crucially, encompass education about digital technologies, and particularly about their social, sociopolitical and ecological consequences." (Pegrum, 2009)

What is apparent is that the general public will now need to embrace change more rapidly than ever to accommodate a cyborg cop, a omnipresent jury and a recollection of events frame by frame.

Google's first "Glass Session", which demonstrates what it’s like to use Glass while it is built, follows Laetitia Gayno, the wife of a Googler, "as she shares her story of welcoming a new baby, capturing every smile, and showing her entire family back in France every “first” through Hangouts.” (Google+ post, 2012)

Our role has changed from a passive participant in an abstract recollection to a first-person perspective; where we have become the camera and it has become us, in essence a state of Uberveillance.

Image by De Angelis, Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom, Cartoons 2012.

This post is based on For more from Alexander Hayes, please visit For information about the 2013 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society in Ontario, Canada in June 2013, please visit