This oft-paraphrased line from Thomas Gray’s 1742 poem has certainly gathered a lot of cred over the past two hundred and seventy-some years. It is sacred tribal knowledge that what you don’t know won’t hurt you, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that which is out of sight is out of mind. Back when the news was printed on cheap paper and tossed on your doorstep every morning, I knew quite a few folks in the neighborhood who sought to lessen their angst by not subscribing. Knowing the calorie count for a piece of chocolate cream pie totally spoils the bliss of eating it, and you are definitely better off not knowing what your teenagers are up to, provided it doesn’t involve the Swat Team or the ER.
But the world we live in has an estimated 8 zettabytes (i.e., 8,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) of stored data, and Facebook single-handedly collects around 15 terabytes a day from its users. Thanks to smart stuff (phones, cars, watches, homes…) and the far-reaching lure of the Internet, it’s nearly impossible to avoid all of it. Not only is modern science relentlessly making Big Data bigger, but the tools we are addicted to put it right on our doorstep every millisecond.
This is a truly wonderful thing, except when it’s not. Take blood, for example. It is a familiar ritual of most visits to the doctor; you are weighed, your blood pressure and pulse are taken, and a vial of your blood is collected. Most of us will want to know how our cholesterol levels are doing and if our blood sugar is normal. Some not-so-welcome information, like an elevated white count, can lead to further testing and extended anxiety. Nevertheless, we know the drill and continue to trudge off to our annual physicals.
Scientists are about to change all that, having realized that the 1.5 gallons of blood that each of us lugs around is teeming with information. Not only does blood comprise Big Data, tests on it are simple, inexpensive and easy to analyze. Dr. Eugene Chan founded a company (DNA Medicine Institute) which is working on a blood test that will show very early signs of things like Alzheimer’s or cancer. Recent discoveries from Brigham and Women’s Hospital have pointed to a way to detect every viral infection that a patient has ever had in just a few seconds. Blood is about to add profound new meaning to the Internet vernacular TMI.
As with many breakthrough technologies, caveat emptor. Numerous problems whose early warning signs will be exposed cannot be cured. Testing may ultimately help change that, but for now all you get is a forecast – cloudy with a chance of early-onset dementia. While a clean bill of health in the new model could be even more satisfying, knowing your future risk of something like prostate cancer or Alzheimer’s is sure to create all sorts of anxiety.
Like it or not, Big Blood Data is coming soon to a phlebotomist near you. With all this information, what’s a wise man to do?