Saturday, 8 February 2014

William Shakespeare and the Internet -- Big Data, Big Dates 1994-2014

It was twenty years ago today, in 1994, that the internet truly arrived, due in large part to the introduction of graphical browsers. It had ten million users. World Wide Web “traffic was equivalent to shipping the entire collected works of Shakespeare every second.”

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space. Few people in the world, other than scholars and aficionados, read all of Shakespeare over a lifetime and even a word like ‘incarnadine’ takes more than a second to say. Still, Shakespeare is reliably brought into the conversation when we want to register a benchmark, the problem here being, what kind of benchmark of value are we talking about with this statistic? I gape not at the impressiveness of the statistic but the impression it creates that something significant is being transmitted every second. One thing we know for certain, www is not shipping the equivalent of Shakespearean meaning every second. No doubt we have invented technology that can ship this amount of data, big and small, every second, and what are we to make of this but that we are very clever indeed. What a piece of work is man. The awkward truth is that Shakespeare’s imaginative writing, in toto, is not equivalent to the mash of undifferentiated information that streams in the firmament when computers talk to one another. While we are impressed by the length of lines sent rapidly in traffic, we do ourselves and Shakespeare a disservice by reducing his poetic achievement to a quantity. Moreover, a far greater danger exists in these blithe equivalents, which is to treat the collected works in print as passé, superseded, redundant. The World Wide Web, in this kind of context, appears to have undone the need for a collected works of Shakespeare. Yet how else do we read him? What is our preferred mode? In this brave new world Shakespeare himself remains alive and well online. There is even an Internet Shakespeare site  that is the latest word on the works, and includes all of the works themselves. It is like living with twins (a favoured concern of the man from Stratford). and the puzzle of these two equally remarkable creations, print and digital, occupies our minds often, some of us every day.     

To appreciate the exponential growth of the internet since 1994, today in 2014 Google alone “processes more than 24 petabytes of data per day, a volume that is thousands of times the quantity of all printed material in the US library of Congress.”

Should we drown our books? This time we reach beyond the confines of the works of Shakespeare with a statistic that wants to say the internet ships the entire collected works, period, every second. A petabyte is one quadrillion of bytes. That is quite a lot of bytes to chew on. It takes about four seconds to say Quadrillion. Shakespeare would have done something with Quadrillion and a good actor could have an audience laughing, holding its breath, or holding back the tears for minutes if the actor delivered the word Quadrillion just so.  Figures like this are unfathomable. They are impossible to get our minds around, even though neurologists tell us the human brain itself stores memories equivalent to about 2.5 petabytes of binary data. Furthermore, we have to ask ourselves if an irreplaceable cultural entity like the Library of Congress (or any library of substantial intellectual worth) is replaceable by petabytes. The implication, if not the import, of this statistic is that it could be, at least by those of us who think in the simple terms of quantifiable equivalence. Our recorded heritage may be being turned into something rich and strange, but how do we sensibly negotiate such change? While Google goes on processing, the Library of Congress goes on collecting the works that might otherwise vanish from sight through various forms of happenstance, and Shakespeare keeps on getting through to people by the most basic sounds of the human voice, with observations as worn and acute as “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We see all of these things as they are, yet how we learn to differentiate each according to its special value remains our present challenge. Instant karma is a promise of the internet today, though we know it does not always deliver on that promise. And it is not the massive scale of big data that speaks to us, but a few words of timely wisdom, wrought from experience in a time before electricity. 

Quotes in red come from ‘Are we puppets in a wired world?’ by Sue Halpern, The New York Review of Books, vol. LX, no. 17, November 7-20, 2013, pp. 24-28. The second quote is taken from one of the books under review, ‘Big Data : a revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think’ by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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