A new post by sociologist Deborah Lupton – Swimming or drowning in the data ocean? Thoughts on the metaphors of big data – provides some stimulating insights into technobiophilic metaphors connecting data to all kinds of water imagery. She says:
By far the most commonly employed metaphors to discuss big data are those related to water or liquidity: streams, flows, leaks, rivers, oceans, seas, waves and so on. Both academic and popular cultural descriptions of big data have frequently referred to the ‘fire hose’ of data issuing from a social media site such as Twitter and the data ‘deluge’, ‘flood’ or ‘tsunami’ that as internet users we both contribute to and which threaten to ‘swamp’ or ‘drown us’. These rather vivid descriptions of data as a fluid, uncontrollable entity possessing great physical power emphasise the sheer volume and fast nature of digital data movements, as well as their unpredictability and the difficulty of control and containment. They suggest an economy of digital data and surveillance in which data are collected constantly and move from site to site in ways that cannot easily themselves be monitored, measured or regulated.
This view matches closely with my own findings. When I asked interviewees ‘if the internet were a landscape, what kind of landscape might it be?’, many of the answers related to water. For example, the CEO of O’Reilly Media, Tim O’Reilly, thinks of it as an ocean: ‘The sea is a sustaining medium, most of which is invisible to us and which, like our atmosphere, we largely take for granted. But elements of it occasionally swim within our range of vision. I think the internet is a lot like that – we see very little of it at any one time.’
In parallel to his vision of the internet as a vast and largely invisible expanse, Deborah Lupton notes that “liquidity metaphors evoke the notion of an overwhelming volume of data that must somehow be dealt with, managed and turned to good use”. Instead of ‘surfing the net’, she remarks, “we now must cope with huge waves of information or data that threaten to engulf us.”