'The Human Face of Big Data': Film Review

Courtesy of Catherine Balet
A limited but thought-provoking take on the new data age.

Joel McHale explains that data harvesting isn't all bad.

It comes as little surprise to see companies like Intel listed as supporters of Sandy Smolan's The Human Face of Big Data, a doc bent on proving that it isn't just Big Brother who stands to gain as computers gather mind-boggling amounts of information about our lives. Though not a wholly boosterish film — it reserves a small bit of its screen time to air concerns that, to be fair, have already had plenty of exposure — the film plays more like a conversation-starter than a comprehensive assessment of society on the brink of the Big Data age. Polished and peppy, it will play best in educational settings and on video.

The film soon gets over its initial industrial-promo vibe, with narrator Joel McHale envisioning an inevitable future in which "every object on earth will be sending data" about how it is used. (Smolan's script is prone to overstatements like this and "everything is quantifiable.") We meet big thinkers like MIT's Joi Ito, who explains that, as a form of self-knowledge, big data is "kind of the opposite" of what we've done until now, which is think of something and then write it down. Henceforth, the writing part will happen unthinkingly — the minutiae of our lives being recorded by our gizmos — and only made sense of in retrospect, with ever more complex and ingenious algorithms.

While most of our current attention is on what a manipulative corporation or government might do with all that knowledge, Smolan wants to remind us of other possibilities. There's the famous case of Google Flu Trends, which helped locate outbreaks before the CDC could. (Its eventual failure is noted here, as a lesson for future researchers.) But we also get fascinating looks at less familiar projects. Cognitive scientist Deb Roy, who filmed nearly every waking moment of his newborn son's first three years, learned amazing things about speech acquisition; the city of Boston, with an app tied to the accelerometers of citizens' smartphones, figured out how to track potholes.

Smolan is too keen on introducing more examples to do any follow-up: Do those potholes get filled more quickly than in the pre-app age? And Philip Sheppard's very busy score doesn't want our minds to settle down on one topic for long, anyway. But for those of us who've overdosed on gloomy news and predictions about digital surveillance, this friendly primer proves we haven't heard the whole story.

Production companies: Against All Odds Productions, Luminous Content

Director-Screenwriter: Sandy Smolan

Producers: Bill Medsker, Sandy Smolan

Executive producers: Rick Smolan, Jerry Solomon

Director of photography: Jacek Laskus

Editor: Daniel Oberle

Music: Philip Sheppard

No rating, 55 minutes