The Graystone Effects of Big Data

As a big data geek and a big fan of science fiction, I was intrigued by Zoe Graystone, the central character of the science fiction television show Caprica, which was a spin-off prequel of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica television show.

Zoe Graystone was a teenage computer programming genius who created a virtual reality avatar of herself based on all of the available data about her own life, leveraging roughly 100 terabytes of personal data from numerous databases.  This allowed her avatar to access data from her medical files, DNA profiles, genetic typing, CAT scans, synaptic records, psychological evaluations, school records, emails, text messages, phone calls, audio and video recordings, security camera footage, talent shows, sports, restaurant bills, shopping receipts, online search history, music lists, movie tickets, and television shows.  The avatar transformed that big data into personality and memory, and believably mimicked the real Zoe Graystone within a virtual reality environment.

The best science fiction reveals just how thin the line is that separates imagination from reality.  Over thirty years ago, around the time of the original Battlestar Galactica television show, virtual reality avatars based on massive amounts of personal data would likely have been dismissed as pure fantasy.  But nowadays, during the era of big data and data science, the idea of Zoe Graystone creating a virtual reality avatar of herself doesn’t sound so far-fetched, nor is it pure data science fiction.

“On Facebook,” Ellis Hamburger recently blogged, “you’re the sum of all your interactions and photos with others.  Foursquare began its life as a way to see what your friends are up to, but it has quickly evolved into a life-logging tool / artificial intelligence that knows you like an old friend does.”

Facebook and Foursquare are just two social media examples of our increasingly data-constructed world, which is creating a virtual reality environment where our data has become our avatar and our digital mouths are speaking volumes about us.

Big data and real data science are enabling people and businesses of all sizes to put this virtual reality environment to good use, such as customers empowering themselves with data and companies using predictive analytics to discover business insights.

I refer to the positive aspects of Big Data as the Zoe Graystone Effect.

But there are also negative aspects to the virtual reality created by our big data avatars.  For example, in his recent blog post Rethinking Privacy in an Era of Big Data, Quentin Hardy explained “by triangulating different sets of data (you are suddenly asking lots of people on LinkedIn for endorsements on you as a worker, and on Foursquare you seem to be checking in at midday near a competitor’s location), people can now conclude things about you (you’re probably interviewing for a job there).”

On the Caprica television show, Daniel Graystone (her father) used Zoe’s avatar as the basis for an operating system for a race of sentient machines known as Cylons, which ultimately lead to the Cylon Wars and the destruction of most of humanity.  A far less dramatic example from the real world, which I explained in my blog post The Data Cold War, is how companies like Google use the virtual reality created by our big data avatars against us by selling our personal data (albeit indirectly) to advertisers.

I refer to the negative aspects of Big Data as the Daniel Graystone Effect.

How have your personal life and your business activities been affected by the Graystone Effects of Big Data?


This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.