Month: April 2012

More Is Different

What’s the difference between a hydrogen atom and the sun? Between a glass of water and the ocean? More.

When we move from a small amount of stuff to a big amount of stuff, quantitative changes become qualitative changes. The difference between 8oz of water and 321 million cubic miles of it, between one hydrogen atom and 1.19 x 1057 of them, is scale and complexity. This is also the difference between data and Big Data.

P.W. Anderson, a physicist, made this argument in his 1972 paper More Is Different. He pointed out that fundamental laws governing things like molecules won’t tell us how, say, DNA behaves. The laws governing DNA won’t tell us how an individual behaves. And what we know about an individual won’t explain Walmart shopping stampedes. His argument was a bit more technical, but he was playing coy for the Nobel committee.

The point is that what we know about creating, storing and using data won’t tell us how Big Data behaves. Or how larger systems, like businesses, governments, economies and societies will behave juiced up on Big Data.

The world is moving into a new era where its real and digital selves are inseparably intertwined. Both come out different. The real world increasingly reflects the connectivity of the digital one, and the digital world the diversity of the real one. The Arab Spring couldn’t have happend without Twitter and Facebook. Twitter and Facebook couldn’t have happened without tens and hundreds of millions of people with their own stories to tell. And none of these phenomena could have been extrapolated from the laws governing a single set of bits going from sender to receiver. More is different.