Rick Smolan talks about his role in documenting the evolution of the network, and about how big data is changing our lives.May 28, 2013
In the mid 1990’s when millions of people were just getting used to cranking up their modems to surf the web and check their AOL accounts, Rick Smolan felt the world shifting. The photographer known for his “Day in the Life” books said he and his colleagues noticed the world was going through a change, and in his words, “it was going to be big.”
He set out to paint a picture of this evolution with a one-day digital snapshot of how cyberspace was impacting people around the world. On Feb. 8, 1996, 150 photojournalists documented the “fledgling technology,” for the project “24 Hours in Cyberspace.”
Two years later, Smolan showed how the microchip was changing human culture with the release of “One Digital Day.” The book even gave a glimpse into the future, when it said athletes would swallow tiny computers that would allow coaches to keep track of their vitals.
It was a foreshadowing of Smolan’s latest project, "The Human Face of Big Data" which came out in the fall of 2012. The book paints a picture of how data is being collected, and harnessed, and how the Internet is now letting sensors and devices and people communicate. I talked with Smolan about how his pictures have chronicled the evolution of the network over the years.
Kirsten Chiala: How have your pictures impacted the way the network is understood or accessed?
Rick Smolan: It's funny, you know, when we first started doing these projects the network was in its infancy. We actually called the project “24 Hours in Cyberspace” and the subtitle was “Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave,” because we were kind of making fun of ourselves saying this is all going to look so primitive in just a few years and I think we were right. But I think at the beginning of the Internet, people sensed something different was happening. We had all had email up to that point but this idea you could raise your hand and say, “I'm trying to solve a problem, has anyone else in the world solved this problem or is [anyone] working on this?”
This idea that geography disappeared because of the Internet, the network allowed, [and] erased the physicality of people so it wasn't just people in your own town, or your own building, or your own company, that everyone could collaborate [with].
I think we’ve seen this acceleration of creativity because of that erasing of the physical nature of creativity. I think we’re seeing that just accelerate now whether it was with the microprocessor that was actually speeding up all of this, or now with "The Human Face of Big Data" where we’re taking vast amounts of data and adding sensors to the network, and the network is now allowing these sensors to talk to each other.
We've never seen anything like this in human history. I'm not exaggerating. We're just starting to grasp what a sea change this is.
KC: How has your documentation of this evolution of the network changed the lives of individuals or even groups of people or companies?
RS: What fascinates me about all this technology is I couldn't program my way out of a paper bag. You know, I'm interested in how does this is affect our children, and our parents, and our day-to-day lives. I'm not interested in technology for the technology’s sake.
So, you know one of the things we asked, we sent a hundred photographers around the world working on this “Human Face of Big Data” project and we wanted to make sure we weren’t just repeating different versions of the same story around different countries.
We looked at health care, we looked at transportation, we looked at astronomy, weather patterns, and finance, environmental impact and how people use electricity in their homes.
In every case it was almost like, imagine if you never looked into a mirror before, it was the first time you could actually see yourself, how different that would be, and that's what we're seeing. We’re able to use these networks to actually hold up like a digital mirror and see ourselves reflected in it and see patterns that we could've never understood and could have never visualized before.
KC: A book like “24 Hours in Cyberspace” has become kind of like a time capsule. Did you realize at the time you were documenting these changes in technology how historic that would be?
RS: One of the things that I've been trying to do with our team of journalists around the world is look for emerging topics, where people are kind of scratching their heads and saying, “What's this cyberspace, Internet, World Wide Web thing?”
Ultimately you use your own judgment but every single person I talked to just felt this wasn’t just another iterative layer; this is going to be really big. I thought how cool would that be to help guide the conversation and get people thinking about this again in a brand-new way.
I was a ham radio operator when I was growing up, [using] Morse code, in some ways it's like watching those early days of ham radio now turn into this global network. I really feel like we are watching the planet develop a nervous system. That's the underlying theme of “The Human Face of Big Data.” The planet is developing a nervous system and we've all become human sensors.
KC: Have you gone back and looked at “24 Hours in Cyberspace” and “One Digital Day?”
RS: I have gone back and looked at some of the older books and remarkably, while some of it is archaic, a lot of it isn't, because we weren't really talking about what the kind of browser was or what the computers were, it’s what were people trying to do with it? They were falling in love, they were learning about space exploration. I think in some ways the stories are just as provocative and relevant today as they were 20 years ago.
KC: Looking back, do you think there were connections made with these books as a result of people seeing these changes visually?
RS: I don't know that we could take credit for any great change in behavior. I do think actually, “The Human Face of Big Data” is getting a much bigger response from people than any book we’ve ever done which surprises me, because as I said in the beginning, it was really hard to figure out how to tell the story; and the fact that I'm hearing from my children’s school teachers in elementary school and then hearing from Jack Dorsey and Marissa Mayer saying, we love this book, this is a wonderful way to tell the story. It seems to go across age, education and geographic boundaries. It’s stories, we all respond to stories, and I think it looks like we were pretty good at kind of telling human stories and showing how the technology is actually woven into those stories.
KC: What does the future look like in your pictures?
RS: About human data or what's the next project?
RS: One of the things that's got my curiosity right now and I've been watching this bubble up the last two months, is the idea of 3-D printers and fabs. I’d been at one conference where they were printing kidneys. Another woman showed us a dress she’d made where she printed the dress, a guy showed me a house, a woman was making jewelry where the pieces moved in a way that you could never design in the physical world but she could actually output it thorough one of these 3-D printers. This idea of the replicator from Star Trek, you know, tea Earl Grey hot, it may not be that far away, you know this idea you can be in your homes and basically create products that we need. I mean, right now it's crude but all the stuff is crude at the beginning. People say, oh it's little plastic crap, but you know in five years it won't be little plastic crap. I bet 20 years we'll look back on the whole fab world, and the 3-D printing world..the world's going to change again and a lot of this has to do with data, big data [in] real-time.
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