In order to understand the idea of Tiny Datum we must first understand that which it is a reaction to: Big Data.
Big Data is the term used for the collection and analysis of very large amounts of data. This data can take many forms such as our Facebook interactions, Google searches, online and physical shopping tendencies, call centre conversations and virtually anything else you’d care to imagine. In today’s technologically orientated world information about almost every facet of our day to day lives is collected and stored. The effects of Big Data are most easily and clearly seen when we see targeted advertisements on Facebook and similar platforms. Our Google searches are stored and our shopping history is analysed by advert providers who then show us adverts based upon that history.
“An IDC study shows that in 2010, there have been 1.2 zettabytes (1,200,000,000,000,000,000,000) of information, a trillion billion bytes of information to be managed and analyzed. It is estimated that by 2020, there is going to be 35 zeta bytes of information. For instance, Twitter alone generates more than 7 Terabytes of data every day, Facebook generate 10 TB. From 2010 to 2020, data is to increase 44X from 1.2 Zettabytes (ZB) to 35.2 ZB. Enterprises are facing massive volumes of data.” Shen, Y et al. (2014).
“About 90% of this information being created is unstructured, like website clicks, mobile phone calls, Facebook posts, call center conversations, tweets, videos and emails.” Gens, F. (2013).
Naturally this huge amount of unstructured data can be very very difficult to analyse and produce meaningful results from. This is why the fields of data science and analytics has recently become so important. People who are able to find ways to make sense of and find patterns within this data in order to, say, find marketing opportunities for a supermarket, pitch a product to a certain demographic or improve the flow of foot traffic around a shopping centre can expect to earn large salaries and build successful careers.
The implications of Big Data are vast and naturally the backlash against it is in full swing. Opponents say that storing such a huge amount of data on our day to day lives is an affront to privacy and fear that the information could, for instance, be used to discriminate against us (car insurance companies are known to charge higher premiums to people who drive at night, for example) spy on us or leave us vulnerable to hacking and cyber crime.
So, we know what Big Data is, now what is Tiny Datum?
From the assignment brief:
“As a provocation and opposition to Big Data, Tiny Datum is something that displays and interacts with a very small number of data points during its existence. Tiny Datum’s data does not have to be stored or shared, its behaviour can be entirely ephemeral and self-fulfilling. Tiny Datum’s datum can relate to its own data, for example its power usage or temperature, rather than to any economic, governmental, security or scientific concern, as is typically the case in big data research. Tiny Datum should take a minimalistic approach to visualisation, sonification or data analysis.”
Tiny Datum subverts Big Data and points out that “there is more to data than just size”. It relates to the ideas of minimalism and reductivism. Where Big Data seeks to collect and use huge amounts of data, Tiny Datum seeks to engage with the smallest data sets possible and use them in such a way as to show that there is depth and relevancy in even that which could be seen as insignificant and irrelevant due to its small size.
Since we’re tangentially drawing upon the ideas of reductivism and minimalism it might be worthwhile just to spend a moment and understand what we’re talking about when we use those terms. Obviously, they’re both huge subjects and it would be impossible to go into any great depth without writing a few thousand words but I’ll attempt to give a bit of an overview of those topics, specifically how they relate to music and to my project.
Minimalism is a post-WWII art movement that found it’s origins in the United States. It is a movement which emphasises purity as its central conceit, asking the viewer to engage only with what they see as part of the piece rather than relating it to any outside reality. Musicians working within minimalism (including Phillip Glass, Terry Riley and Michael Nyman) seek to break down music to its bare essences and concentrate on the power of the sonic purity rather than the emotions that those sounds may evoke. My piece engages with minimalist elements in that it is centred around sine waves (the fundamental building block of synthesised sound and something which is a fundamental natural constant), with every element of what is quite a large and textured piece deriving from that most simplistic of waveforms. As a composer I use elements of minimalism in my standard studio production based (as opposed to fine art based) practice. I often use simple two or three note melodies, simple chord sequences and spacious, clear drums. This simplicity is then subverted by the deep textures and layers of simplicity that I use to create pieces which sound rich and deep. This is the approach that I have taken with my installation, the juxtaposition between the simple root of the piece and the rich, dynamic outcome. This ties into the Tiny Datum theme because from this simple root comes something large and complex, showing that there is indeed a great deal that can be derived from even the smallest and simplest of data sets.
Steve Reich’s Four Organs. An example of minimalist music. Reich, S. (1970).
Reductivism in art refers to a process rather than a movement. It is a process of simplifying, consolidating and condensing. The images I posted in an earlier blog by the artist Jason Shulman (who condenses entire films into a single frame) are an example of reductivism, as is Kyp’s reduction of The Story of O to punctuation marks and the letter O for this project. Reductivism can be a means through which we can arrive at work which could be called minimalist through the simplification of larger and more complex works. In musical terms reductivism is very much the same, simplifying a piece of music in order to either analyse it, make it easier to play or alter it’s aesthetic in order to engage with it in a novel manner. I am not a technically gifted instrumentalist and so reductivism is often a very useful tool for me. As a matter of fact, I often disengage with music which I view as unnecessarily complex. For instance, as a producer I often work with session musicians if I need someone to play certain parts or certain instruments that I am not capable of playing myself. I always allow them a certain freedom to put their own stamp on the track but there’s one thing I find myself saying to them more than anything else: “Play less”. This is because session musicians, as gifted as they are, will tend to try and overplay a part, distracting from the overall tone of the music by focusing on technical prowess and complexity over clarity. I think by reducing a work we can arrive at its very essence, stripping away the external layers to allow us a glimpse into the very heart of the piece. It is a process which brings clarity.
Jason Schulman’s Voyage de la Lune. An example of reductive art. Schulman, J (2016).
At its core, Tiny Datum is about simplicity. We are working with tools that encourage us to think creatively about how they can be used because of their small size and the fact that those small sizes force us to engage directly with that data set rather than consider any inherent externals. The attendant problem with that is that because we need to engage with something so small we need to find a data set which allows us a degree of flexibility in how that data can be presented. This is how I arrived at the idea of using sine waves.
My Creative/Design Project
As I’ve mentioned previously, sine waves are more or less the simplest form of sound imaginable and are something that is found throughout nature. This fundamentality was appealing to me for a number of reasons: Firstly, the fact that something so simple could be so important that it is central to so many fields (including physics, mathematics, engineering, geometry and of course music) shows that it has a significance which belies its simple form. Secondly, as someone who has long been a user of hardware and software synthesisers I have a familiarity with the sound of a sine wave, its uses and its potential. Thirdly, it was simply the most basic sound I could think of which would give me the flexibility I would need to create something which (I hope) is interesting to listen to and diverse enough to function as a coherent piece of music.
I have covered the installation itself in other posts so I won’t go into that again here but there are one or two other issues that have arisen that I would like to address.
The interactive element of the installation has changed somewhat since it was originally conceived. I was intending it to be a work which was wholly reactive and would change very dynamically based upon the position and movement of the user. This turned out to be impractical due to the rapidly changing effects parameters causing unwanted sonifications. Instead, it has been imbued with something more like a sense of memory. With five second timers on the ultrasonic sensors it, in a sense, remembers where you’ve been within the space and changes the music accordingly, similar to the History Tablecloth (Gaver, W et al. (2006)) which John was involved with. As the user of that piece said: “It’s like a cat. You can interact with it but you can’t tell it what to do”. It encourages and responds to interaction without over-responding. It encourages slow movement around the space which allows one to soak up the ambiance and really listen to it but still feel as though they’re part of the piece and having an effect on how it performs itself. It makes the user feel as though they are inside and part of the music.
The main theme is really one of showing that something very large and interesting can be created from something very very small and potentially insignificant. That’s the reason I chose to use an octophonic setup with four computers. It also creates a nice visual symmetry which I found quite pleasing.
I have found that by switching off the lights I can achieve quite a nice ambiance and having the piece lit by the computer screens, flashing Arduino lights and speaker lights alone creates a nice effect and allows one to focus more on the sound. This was influenced by performance by John Cage et al where they had high tables with pools of light underneath. I also decided to show the Pure Data patches onscreen as a way of further integrating the audience with the piece and making one feel as though one is inside it and part of it, showing the guts if you like. I’m happy with this visual dynamic overall and I think it ties in to the theme of minimalism to the extent that it is not overthought or overdesigned, it just presents you with its essence.
My installation under construction.
My presentation continues with the sine wave theme and functions in a similar way to my installation piece: An interesting way to present something that is very very simple. I have opted for a purer approach with this in that the sounds that I am using are recognisably sine waves or derived therefrom (the installation piece uses very heavily effected and layered sine waves to the point where, while you can tell from where those sounds are derived, it is not particularly overt). This is because I wanted to present the idea in a purer form and wanted to show how sine waves can be used by themselves to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Gaver, W et al. (2006). The history tablecloth: illuminating domestic activity. Proceedings of the 6th conference on Designing Interactive systems. University Park, PA, USA.
Gens, F. (2014). Competing on the Third Platform. [online] Available at: http://www.idc.com/ research/Predictions13/downloadable/238044.pdf [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].
Reich, S. (1970). Four Organs/Phase Patterns. [Vinyl] Paris, France: Shandar.
Shen, Y et al. (2014). Big Data Overview in Y. Shen et al (eds): Enabling the New Era of Cloud Computing: Data Security, Transfer and Management. Hershey> PA, USA.
Shulman, J. (2016). Photographs of Films. [online] Available at: http://www.jasonshulmanstudio.com/photographs-of-films/ [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].