Things Interpretations Dimensions

Big Data and Other Giants

Reinhard Wendler

The term Big Data has been used since 1997 with its present meaning.1 In the past five years it has attracted more and more attention and has become a fixed component of the public discussion on the role of digitalization in our society. Two aspects are often linked to the term Big Data: on the one hand an information technology problem with its mathematical and technological solutions, and on the other, a jump in scale with global economic, political and cultural consequences. Big Data implies the perception that the world is on the threshold of a new dimension and social order, a new digital era in which the cards are being reshuffled. The present contribution deals with the second aspect and attempts to pursue the nuances of meaning that resonate in the big in Big Data.


The big in Big Data refers explicitly to the fact that the masses of collected and stored data pouring in have reached dimensions that can no longer be mastered with the tried and tested terms and algorithms. Three of these dimensions have been named again and again in the technical literature of the past few years: volume, variety and velocity.2 They designate the fact that the size of the data, the variability of the data sets and the speed of their arrival are too big to be processed with conventional systems. Numerous interventions are necessary to filter out from these heterogeneous masses of data the transactions that are relevant for the respective purpose, forming them into an interpretable whole. They must be filtered, cleansed, pruned, conformed, matched, joined and finally diagnosed and interpreted.3 To master this task, precise and fast-working programmes are necessary. Many of the sales strategies of the providers of such programmes give the impression that what counts is being equipped – as quickly as possible – with the right programmes, so as to be properly prepared to confront Big Data.  This is a part of the implicit meaning of the term.


The notion of confronting mountains of data with a small software programme recalls the story of David and Goliath. The inexperienced boy can defeat the heavily armed veteran soldier if he has the right weapon. In the same way, it is hoped, a small company can win against the data and at the same time against the big company as long as it possesses the right software. The entrepreneur Brian Kardon, for example, maintains this: "You can really be David to the big companies' Goliath by leveraging data effectively [...]. You can beat much bigger, well-funded companies if you're able to harness that data."4 As in the biblical story, the seemingly very clear relative strengths can cease to be effective and the large companies can be defeated. The data Goliath is also evoked elsewhere and in other ways, for instance in Bruce Schneider's Data and Goliath or Nicco Mele's The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath. Here, learning from David means understanding that an overly powerful giant can often be defeated only with very unprepossessing means.


The phenomenon Big Data and marketing rhetoric conjure up memories not only of David's victory over Goliath, but also of other experiences collected throughout our world history, usually in legends. In Ancient Greece giants were evoked to elucidate events or findings that eluded any other explanation. Thus, most ancient giant sagas can be related directly to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, lightning or floods. "[The] relationship of [battles of giants] to elementary upheavals caused by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes is particularly clear. In those places where local legends of battles of giants have survived, volcanically active forces or traces of the same can almost without exception be verified: fire-spewing mountains, mud volcanoes, earthquakes, sulphur springs, et cetera. [...] It was thought that earthquakes were caused by giants imprisoned below the surface of the earth, and that these giants, struggling to free themselves or in the throes of death, also because of the fires in which they were burning [...], spewed smoke and flames."7 Friedrich Wieseler emphasized that a veritable natural doctrine of tectonic, volcanic and meteorological occurrences was hidden behind the Greek giant sagas.8 Imagined as giants, these catastrophes could be put into a size and aspect that was accessible to human comprehension. Helene Furján speaks of the "scale of comprehension".9 In this way, for example – according to Kallimachos – the eruption of Mount Etna can be understood as the attempt of the giant Enkelados to free himself from prison underneath Sicily (figure 1).10 Giants like Enkelados act as barely understandable proxies of much bigger and incomprehensible events. In proportion to human beings, they are gigantic; in proportion to the events they stand in for, they are small.

Figure 1: Eruption of Mount Etna in 1766, engraving of Alessandro D´Anna arround 1770.

Starting from Greek mythology, the gigantic stood for "size beyond the controlled norm" and thus for excess and exaggeration. It functioned as an intermediary between what cannot be grasped and what is familiar, by associating human characteristics and emotions with superhuman strength and ferocity. Friedrich Wieseler points to the "elementary forces of nature" thematized by the giant sagas – forces "by which the clear appearance, light-filled order and harmony, the calm existence of this world is altered".12 The role of the giants in Greek mythology is consistent for the most part: "The Greek saga knows [...] only as an exception giants who do not demonstrate defiance and presumption towards the gods, and none that are not regarded as gigantic or strong and violent creatures."13

In literary history the connection between giants and the threat to public order has continued to this day. Two of the most entertaining examples of this in the modern era may well be Gargantua and Pantagruel from the eponymous books by Rabelais. They and their author flout every cultural norm that Rabelais might have known about. Susan Stewart summarizes her reading of these and other modern tales of giants with the words: "The giant, from Leviathan to the sideshow freak, is a mixed category; a violator of boundary and rule; an overabundance of the natural and hence an affront to cultural systems. [...] the gigantic unleashes a vast and 'natural' creativity that bears within it the capacity for (self-)destruction."14


In Big Data and Analytics: Strategic and Organizational Impacts, Vincenzo Morabito describes Google and Facebook as "big data giants".15 He thus deliberately invokes the notion of threatening and unpredictable actors who exclusively follow their own laws. In the context of Greek giant sagas, it seems plausible to speak of personified forces that elude the human concept. Michael Nentwich and René König have tried to make the big Social Network Services (SNS) comprehensible in a similar way by comparing them to black holes: "[O]nce a SNS has reached a hyper-critical mass, it creates new dependencies, as it works like a black hole. The bigger it gets, the more people are drawn to it, the more content it produces and so on."16 Just as a black hole has its own physical law, Internet giants have their own economic and social laws. And, like the biggest banks since the beginning of the twentieth century, they are "too big to fail".17 That is, most of the time they are kept from going bankrupt by states, but they otherwise evade state regulation. Therefore, Google and Facebook confidently represent the view that the economy, politics and society must orientate themselves to them and not the other way round. A large part of this reasoning and their power of persuasion are based on the notion of a scale boundary that humanity has to cross for the sake of progress, one that has already been crossed by the protagonists mentioned above. On this side of the boundary is the familiar world, the usual processes, routines and social and economic orders; on the other side, however, a new world stretches out, a world in which these familiar orders have no continued existence. The solution of Big Data is in this aspect comparable to the phrase "Go West", which promised new arrivals in the New World a prosperous future in the western part of the continent.18

scale limits

As the giant sagas illustrate, transgressions of scale boundaries have long since been in the treasury of our collective experience. At first it was primarily natural catastrophes that were used to explain the concept, whose causes were mostly seen in the realm of the gods. This changed at the beginning of the early modern era, as the consequences of scientific and technological innovations began to influence human society as fundamentally as natural occurrences had before. The establishment of printing with movable type in 1550 can be counted as one of these events. It changed social structures so deeply that Marshall McLuhan spoke of the "Gutenberg Galaxy", which, as it were, orbited round itself in cultural history space.19 Books became more numerous and more affordable, thus making the knowledge they contained available to new social circles. Rabelais was only slightly overstating the matter when he wrote: "The [...] art of printing [...] was invented in my time, by divine inspiration [...]. I find robbers, hangmen, freebooters, and grooms nowadays more learned than the doctors and preachers were in my time."20 Hence, the introduction of printing facilitated and accelerated the development of radical social changes and modern sciences.


At the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, the consequences of this media revolution became clearer and clearer. Furthermore, the discovery of new continents and cultures, the establishment of new trade routes and the goods, images and ideas transported to Europe on them, the findings that the invention of the telescope made possible, and those of microscopy and anatomy, led to an unforeseen flood of new information. This explosion of knowledge posed a challenge to the representations of power of the Catholic Church and European monarchies, which had been based on a much smaller empirical foundation. The researcher, collector and Jesuit Athanasius Kircher understood that the principles of Christian faith could not succeed by contesting or ignoring the new scientific observations. Instead, he consistently understood the scientific and technological upheavals of his time as the result of divine intervention. In his key work Iter Exstaticum of 1660, he made the supposition that God had revealed new parts of the world that had been hidden in previous eras. According to Kircher, this expansion of creation must go hand in hand with an expansion of the human spirit, so that the new dimensions could be included and understood.21 This remarkable chain of thought was invoked again and again in the following centuries. Today, divine intervention has gradually lost importance in favour of human behaviour, now seen as the cause of changes.


The fact that the results of human activities can exceed human comprehension can be grasped in the 1810 painting El Gigante, traditionally attributed to Francisco de Goya (figure 2). The significance of this painting was and still is disputed,22 which can be seen as evidence that the artist did not want to create a fixed meaning, but rather a space of possibilities. Indeed, this conjecture is confirmed by the painting itself. A possible interpretation is seeing the giant as a symbol of the violence of the Spanish War of Independence from 1807 to 1814. The giant's legs almost completely disappear behind a mountain range or the curvature of the earth; he towers over the clouds and is already or is still lit by the sun, while the landscape still or already lies in the shadow of night. The painting has also been named El Pánico, as a host of people and animals flee from the giant, whose size is emphasized in many ways. As in the Greek giant sagas, here, too, an incomprehensibly big and violent event has been radically transformed in order to make it understandable in the depiction of a gigantic human body.


Figure 2: El Gigante, attributed to Francisco de Goya:

(El Coloso, El Pánico), 1808–1812, Museo del Prado, Madrid

In addition to the new media and war technologies, as well as progress in science and transport, industrialization also provoked reactions that are indeed similar to those of Athanasius Kircher. Many diagnoses sound like that of Siegfried Giedion, who wrote, in 1948, in Mechanization Takes Command: [T]he technical means outstrip human beings and run around without keepers."23 The description of technical means as giants that "outstrip" human beings points to both a loss of terminology and of control, as well as to a breaking-up of human scale in an ethical sense. The absence of keepers doubles and emphasizes the perception of a loss of control, which can only be met with the retrieval of conceptual and physical control. The threatening "mechanized barbarity",24 according to Giedion, can only be prevented by an "unprecedented superiority over the means of production".25 Finally, Giedion, like Kircher in the seventeenth century, calls for an expansion of the human spirit as a reaction to the new order of size.


In the 1960s, György Kepes warned radically: "Every magnitude has its own structure. If limits of scale are overrun, either a new level is reached or the old level collapses."26 The danger of a collapse of the social order proceeds from the new dimensions of scientific and technological development: "Objects passing swiftly – motorcycles, aeroplanes, intercontinental rockets, orbiting capsules – weave a fast-growing net around us with patterns of speeds rising spirally."27 Human beings fail to react to this exponential development by adapting their visualization models. "Concepts for a slower, tardier scale of existence have been given to us; they are more and more useless in the exploding developments of events."28 In this way, says Kepes, the present and future created by humankind increasingly slip out of human control and design. Insisting on outdated views of the world and patterns of behaviour leads to a "crisis of scale";29 to counter this Kepes suggests an expansion of visual skills: "New conditions challenge the idioms of our sensibility. A new situation forces us to develop an innovative vocabulary of vision. Today we are facing such a revision of the means of our vision."30 Again, as with Kircher and Giedion, it means facing the new dimensions through an expansion of the human spirit – "modifications of consciousness".31


No speculative acrobatics are necessary to recognize that the Big Data industry considers itself and us to be in a situation that strongly resembles the scenarios invoked here. As in Ancient Greece, it is necessary to react to the giants quickly, resolutely and above all correctly. The faster the reaction, the hope goes, the lower the danger of being caught and squashed by the giants. In this scenario, conservative behaviour is expressed not by insistence on traditional values and patterns of behaviour, but rather, on the contrary, on the fastest possible reaction to basic changes. The giant, so the connotative threat, will destroy all of those who do not dispose of the means or the readiness to react to the new conditions.


These arguments owe their cogency to the exemplarily cited, culturally historical embedded experiences with fundamental upheavals, earthquakes, wars, industrialization, and so on. The stronger the pressure to act, however, that this view of Big Data generates, the more closely it should be considered whether or not the phenomenon should even be included in the series of such occurrences. Doubts are completely justified. Moreover, an excess of information is in no way a new phenomenon. The selective perception of humankind and animals documents that Big Data can by all means be understood as a technological manifestation of a problem that was originally biological. Caused by new media technologies, volatile expansions of available information belong to the – in the meantime – familiar historical events of the modern era. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan holds the view that, already with the invention of printing, Europe entered "the technical phase of progress in which change in itself is the archetypical norm of social life."32 Is Big Data really a giant in our world, one that blows to pieces our terminology and asks too much of our possibilities? Or does it become one only because a "critical mass"33 of companies believes in it and behaves accordingly? It is worth getting to the bottom of this.

Figure 3: Mikoshi-niūdō, Figure: quasi-géants [quasi giants] and dwarf giants. From Nabeta Gyokuei, Toriyama Sekien. Kaibutsu Ehon, place of publication unknown. 1881, page unknown.

For testing purposes, the Mikoshi-niūdō, a creature in Japanese mythology, may help to give the big in Big Data other nuances of meaning (figure 3). According to several Japanese texts, you mostly come upon him when you are alone on a path at night: "At first it looks like a small monk of about three shaku, but as [you] get closer it becomes seven or eight shaku and one sun tall." Apparently the creature grows bigger through focused fear. The greater the fear, the bigger the Mikoshi-niūdō. Respectively, the visitant can be made to disappear with the words "I saw you"35 (I recognized you as Mikoshi-niūdō).36 Tobias Winnerling comments on a Japanese text from 1639 in which the Italian missionary Organtino-Gnecchi Soldo was compared to a Mikoshi-niūdō when he landed in Japan.37 This incursion of foreign cultural influence that shakes the very foundations of Japanese culture is captured in a picture that depicts the well-known connection between fear and apparent size. The comparison encourages meeting the foreigner with self-confidence and understanding that seeming overly powerful is a delusion caused by fear.


In addition, the figure of the quasi-géant [quasi giant] in Victor Hugo's novel L'Homme qui rit [The Man Who Laughs] should be mentioned here. (The German translator of the novel, Georg Büchmann, called him a Scheinriese, an apparent or quasi giant.) The quasi giant in question is Phelem-ghe-Madone, who is defeated by the Scottish boxer Helmsgail.38 Using the giant as an example, Hugo makes the point that strengths in one respect often go hand in hand with weaknesses in another. "The great giant [...] had to bear the inconveniences of his advantages; he moved heavily. His arms were massive as clubs; but his chest was a mass."39 Phelem-ghe-Madone is only a quasi giant due to the fact that he does not at the same time have at his command the advantages of Helmsgail, the smaller man: speed, nimbleness, and, in Hugo's narrative, intelligence. Hugo goes so far as to claim that Phelem-ghe-Madone's defeat is probably foredoomed: "A little man against a big one, and the chances are in favour of the little one. The cat has the best of it with a dog. Goliaths are always vanquished by Davids."40 Hugo's description of the fight is about the superiority of the nimble-footed smaller man, who navigates in between the blows of the giant, clouts him over and over and finally defeats him. As with Mikoshi-niūdō, it is sangfroid that takes away Phelem-ghe-Madone's dangerousness.


Michael Ende uses the notion of the quasi giant in a related way. In Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer [Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver] the giant's name is Mr Tur Tur, and from a distance he looks gigantic. The closer he gets, the more he shrinks, until it turns out that he is exactly as big as his counterpart. Mr Tur Tur is not subject to optical laws, according to one of which an object appears smaller the farther away it is. Unlike the Mikoshi-niūdō, apparent size is related less to fear than to physical and psychic distance. Michael Ende's quasi giant addresses the circumstance that things can appear very big, important or terrifying as long as you do not look at them closely. If you resolutely get to the bottom of things, they can be seen in their true size. In the case of Mr Tur Tur, he is an insecure person who has fled to the desert in order not to continually cause fear in his fellow human beings because of his optical peculiarities.


It may be helpful to imagine Big Data giants one after the other as Mikoshi-niūdō, Phelem-ghe-Madone and Mr Tur Tur so as to test its true size. As a matter of fact, they help to size up the phenomenon more judiciously: The fear of economic or social failure undoubtedly plays a role in the gigantic size of the Big Data phenomenon. The size of the masses of data makes quick adjustments to and evaluation strategies for changed circumstances more difficult. Moreover, in the eyes of an experienced database expert, a great deal of the Big Data phenomenon is merely the jingling of the marketing of software products. An indication that incredible amounts of data do not make a giant lies in the remarkable growth in importance of the small in the Big Data industry. What we are talking about is Small Data and the fact that data is only utilizable when it is of a manageable size: "Unfortunately, our Big Data databases are not really 'Big', they are less like robust cross-trained athletes and more like gawky nerds who have one splinter skill and are mostly ineffective at everything else."41


As reflected in historic sagas and literary narratives, it is clear that Big Data, though in many respects a giant, is not remotely so in others. It is a case, at least for the time being, of its own kind of half giant, a hybrid creature that is at the same time immeasurably large and surprisingly small. This is by no means an exception in the altogether relative world of scaling. Gaston Bachelard writes in his La Poétique de l'espace [The Poetics of Space]: "One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small."42 This "dialectics of large and small"43 is also subject to the Big in Big Data. It is all the more real the better the software therein can extract the correct Small Data and put it into a human "scale of comprehension".44 In other words: the bigger the effective pressure for action on the enterprise and the software developer is, the more influential the "critical mass"45 of the entrepreneur will be; and the more powerful the new algorithms are, the bigger the importance of the immense masses of data will be. Looked at in this way, the term Big Data initially expressed the hope of the protagonists that development would take a favourable direction. At present, it can hardly be doubted that this scenario has more or less been fulfilled. At the moment, the quasi giant and the half giant are growing into a real giant and will lead to various changes, changes that up to now have been rattling round only as self-fulfilling prophecies. Nonetheless, it must not be forgotten that the Big Data giant, just like the giants of ancient mythology, is a dwarf in comparison to the world that he is to make explicable. However big and extensive Big Data becomes, in comparison to the fractal abundance of individual and social living and weaving it is tiny.


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Figure 1: Eruption of Mount Etna in 1766, engraving of Alessandro D´Anna arround 1770. 
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Accessed: 9.6.2016'Etna_del_1766,_incisione_colorata_di_Alessandro_D'Anna.jpg

Figure 2: Attributed to Francisco de Goya, El Gigante (El Coloso, El Pánico), 1808–1812, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Accessed: 9.6.2016

Figure 3: Mikoshi-niūdō, Figure: quasi-géants [quasi giants] and dwarf giants. From Nabeta Gyokuei, Toriyama Sekien. Kaibutsu Ehon, place of publication unknown. 1881, page unknown.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Accessed: 9.6.2016