Water – the ideal metaphor for data

Heraclitus created with Panta rhei (Greek: Everything flows) the bases for a new world view more than two and a half thousand years ago. You cannot step twice into the same stream. The simple insight that results is that everything is in permanent coming and going. It is at first sight always water that flows in the river – however always different one. The same happens with our current, virtual flows that are filled with data. That makes water to the ideal metaphor for data.

Let’s look at some characteristics of water and data.

  • Physical state
    Water can be found in three conditions: solid, liquid and gas. The melting point is the transition from solid to liquid and the boiling point between liquid and gas. Data takes shape the same way. As long as nothing can be expressed as zeros and ones, because they were not yet determined or expressed, there is nothing that can flow – like ice. Data reaches its melting point, as soon as someone expresses its thoughts in the form of language, pictures or sound, or after a sensor provided measured data. Now the data can flow – disseminated, exchanged or received. If the temperature rises further, then it reaches sometime the boiling point. The data becomes fuzzy – like steam. The sensors produce in this case an indefinite noise that cannot be captured in the virtual space.
    In order to receive useful data, it, as water, has to be converted into liquid condition. Either you have to heat it, so that it becomes visible – by measuring or questioning. Or you must cool it in order to consolidate it into to processible data.
  • Quality
    Let us limit ourselves to the simple distinction between pure, in the sense of potable, versus contaminated, in the sense of poisonous, water. We differentiate between objective and false data. In general we believe in pure data, if it originates from trusted sources. Obviously contaminated data is supplied by sources that are suspicious – research results, because they were created by a biased source; news, because they were published by a politically depended press.
    Unfortunately the quality is often based on an evaluation by third parties that is doubtful – if for example one press agency accuses another to be politically manipulated. On the other hand, contaminated data is used – even more than you can drink water that is poisoned to a certain degree.
  • Channels
    The water is continually running in a circular flow – water evaporates above the sea, rains down on the mountains, and produces creeks, rivers and streams, which sometimes flow over water falls back into the sea. The sea of data exists in the public and the protected virtual area. Clouds are formed in the world Wide Web with the Internet of Things that are collected in programs, are mixed up with new data in the processes, and are getting back through interfaces, like water falls, into the cyberspace.
    With Cloud computing, we are approaching more and more this state – even, if still many do not entrust their data to the cloud, due to strong concerns about the security. These internal dams offer no more protection on a long-term basis, since all data has to flow from time to time through the cyberspace.
  • Dangers
    An obvious danger comes from very strong contaminated water that poisons the users within shortest time. In the last years also the unimaginable power is shown to us by water floods, tsunamis, or dam failures after strong rainfalls. We quickly forget that no water represents a still worse threat – above all, if countries mutually cut water resources, as you can see at the distribution problems in the West Bank, at the dams of the Mekong in China or at the Aral Sea. The spreading of false information contaminates likewise the attitudes and insights of the audience. At the same time more and more data is flooded through the Internet. The attempt to sort this data leads on the one hand to filter bubbles that fade out a large part of the data. On the other hand the filters provide the possibility to manipulate the public opinion by subtly filtering critical contents, like for example the censorship of the embedded journalism. And eventually the lack of data results in dangerous misjudgments.

Different thinkers have taken care of the question “How real is the reality?” But nevertheless many people still argue with categories like “Right” and “Wrong”. The truth lies as always in the eye of the beholder. With the new conflagration of propaganda, we probably have to live with the fact that new terms, as “post factual” or „alternative facts” are trying to hide this dilemma. We should not forget that some people are not shy to sell good and bad data and unsuspecting people are consuming them without questioning – like water.

Bottom line: Data behaves obviously like water – there are similar physical states, qualities, channels and dangers. Data flows, data streams and data overloads can be controlled by particularly created riverbeds and dams as well as by filters. Thus, water is the ideal metaphor for data.