By Fareed Zakaria
We are living with the consequences of two powerful, interrelated trends. The first is digital life. Your life today has a digital signature. Where you eat, shop and travel; whom you call, e-mail and text; every website, cafe and museum you visit even once is all stored in the great digital cloud. And you can't delete anything, ever. "This will be the first generation of humans to have an indelible record," write Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their book The New Digital Age.
The second is Big Data. Americans were probably most shocked by the revelation that the U.S. government is collecting massive quantities of their digital signatures – billions of phone calls and e-mails and Internet searches. The feds aren't monitoring every last one. But they easily could, and this is the essence of the age of Big Data.
In ancient times – by which I mean a decade ago – computers would sort through random samples of data or try to create an algorithm to search for a criminal. But today, data is so readily available and computers are so fast and powerful that experts can analyze entire data sets, every last piece of information, to find needles in haystacks. As a result, they have stopped trying to figure out why something – say, crime – happens. Instead they look at crimes and notice what events or behaviors seem to precede them. In other words, the tricky work of turning information into knowledge has shifted from causation to correlation.