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Data scientists, are you ready to rock?

From Brooklyn comes Big Data, a conceptual music project with a technology back story to rival that of any Silicon Valley start-up. Founder Alan Wilkis is an early member of Facebook Inc., having attended Harvard University the same time as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The name for the band comes from a good friend, Jeff Hammerbacher, who built and led Facebook’s data team. Mr. Hammerbacher then went on to co-found Cloudera, a rising star in the growing field of data analytics, where scientists mine large volumes of data to provide businesses a competitive advantage.

But Big Data, the music, has some issues with Big Data, the technology and questions whether the data we so willingly share online can be used against us. Mr. Wilkis, together with co-conspirators  Daniel Armbruster, who contributed vocals on Big Data’s first EP 1.0 and resident hacker Rajeev Basu, mine the ambiguities surrounding the rise of the Facebook’s and Google’s of the world to create some pretty catchy, definitely paranoid electronic pop.

People–and perhaps an algorithm or two–are paying attention. Last week ‘Dangerous,’ a song with an playful, but ominous bass-riff and some Big Brother-y lyrics —-”But they’re right inside my head because they know”–was ranked number two on satellite radio SirusXM’s Alt Nation channel.

The song’s ranking followed the band’s release last year of a Facebook app that pulled in a user’s past photos and previous statuses in rhythm with the music. “The more it goes on the more you think jeez, all my stuff is out there,” explains Mr. Wilkis. “It sort of perfectly encapsulates the inspiration for the band.”

Mr. Wilkis talked about Big Data and why he can’t stop using technology, no matter how much it makes him paranoid.

From your songs it sounds like you’re uneasy with technology.
I could go on and on about how I love technology. But at the same time there are terrifying things about all this. Our information is so out there now and readily accessible and every other week  something horrifying comes out of the news like an Edward Snowden.

So are you hoping to dissuade your tech fans from working in analytics?
What I am doing is almost more satirical. I am not trying to be a blowhard about everything. I am the first to admit that I’m as deeply entrenched in technology and new media as anybody else and I am not about to let any of it go. Maybe the greatest irony of all is that I am making music about being paranoid about the Internet while using the Internet to make it and market it and share it.

As a musician you can’t escape contributing to the problem, so to speak.
In order to be an artist now you have to be an entrepreneur. You have to use the Internet and social media like crazy, it is so absurdly competitive and such a crowded market.  The odds of succeeding making music are so horribly stacked against you that you are a fool if you don’t try to use new technology.

Another irony, you’re using machine music to talk about machines.
I describe it as ‘paranoid electronic pop music.’ I love electronic music and I have been playing guitar all my life so it [Big Data's music] is somewhere in the middle.

What role does electronic music play in delivering your message?
It would be a huge missed opportunity if I didn’t use synthetic sounds. Because it is all man and machine. And that’s what I like about having the guitar being such a part of it. It’s that line between the human and that tech element. That ties to Big Data, the concept. A lot of it is really trying to decipher trends in human behavior and human experience using data. It’s really, really effective at that in a lot of ways.

I think of how Kraftwerk found a soul in the machine.
They found a way to take very cold, electronic sounds and somehow making it an incredible human thing.

Your lyrics shares that paranoia that runs through much of pop music. It is not technology-specific. 
I think if I were writing songs that were explicitly, like ‘the Internet makes me do this.’ If it was so on the nose… I think it would be a gimmick. So I like to look at it more as how do these modern problems of technology and these conflicting emotions that we all are experiencing about it… how does that make you feel?

You want people to rock.
I want to make people happy. I want them to enjoy the music.




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