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Dataism

Data might be thought of as a recorded fact.

Data is kind of meaningless on its own - it has to be processed in various ways; i.e. interpreted.
If an item of data is like a grain of sand, meaningless in itself, a lot of data can be like a sand dune; something with form that carries more information than the grains of sand seen in isolation.

People have various senses that feed data to brains which processes that data into meaningful information. Brains work with masses of data.
I look out my window at a grove of trees with a sunlit building behind.
I never perceive that data as data.
I perceive it as a grove of trees with a sunlit building behind.

The sort of data processing that underlies our experience of reality evolved to find patterns in the data that comes from our senses.
Reality has many patterns that our senses aren't able to detect directly.
We can sense the warmth of the sun directly, and its relative direction, but we can't directly sense how far away it is or what it's made of.

Slowly, over millennia, people have developed ways of handling data that went beyond direct experience.
We learned to speak and write.
This enabled people to detect patterns in the data that were not apparent to direct experience.

But gathering and communicating data was a cumbersome and slow process for a long time.
That has changed a lot with the development of computers and the internet.
Now, certain sorts of data can be gathered and processed by machines in huge masses and all sorts of patterns are emerging from the data.
The systems that do that are grouped together as Big Data. There are many companies mining the internet now gathering Big Data about all sorts of things - from climate change to personal shopping habits.

This is pretty positive.
I think the more we learn the better and that new methods of perceiving reality open new vistas to explore.

This has caused excitement and alarm. David Brooks in the New York Times has announced a new faith "Dataism". He said

" . . . data will help us do remarkable things - like foretell the future . . . the data revolution is giving us wonderful ways to understand the present and the past."

I'm reading a paper about this for my cultural studies class. Its a chapter from Byung-Chul Han's "Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and new technologies of power" titled Big Data.
They don't like the idea.
Will Big Data " . . .not just watch over human behavior, but also subject it to psychopolitical steering?"

They compare Big Data to Bentham's idea for an ideal prison called the panopticon.
In a panopticon the cells are all arranged as a cylinder with each cell open towards the center. At the center was a tower manned by the guards who could see everything that the prisoners did while the prisoners couldn't see the guards or each other.

Han quotes the marketing claim of a Big Data company to provide a '360 degree customer view" in the context of a guard watching over prisoners to control them.
Han claims that these systems can " . . . peer into the human soul itself."

Data-ists speak of entering an age of purely data drive knowledge.

"Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it and can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves." - Chris Anderson

Han points out that the claim doesn't work. "Meaning is based on narration. Data simply fills up the senseless void".

Han understands that people use Big Data yet they speak of Big Data as if it was some sort of autonomous thing. Right now Big Data serves the interests of businesses and politicians. The fear is that it could come to serve the interests of a totalitarian regime.
Perhaps though the example of politicians is instructive.
They certainly use Big Data - but they use it against each other and so they tend to neutralize each other.
That is, Big Data doesn't give the power over people that Han fears though it may have to do with society's extreme polarization.

I'm used to Google and Google is all about Big Data. I get "personalized" ads all the time. They hardly are ever relevant to my needs or interests.

What do you think?
I open the floor.

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.