Everything you can do, you can do better with data

That’s the new nerdism. We think our obsession with data is brand new, but data predates big data by a huge margin. In fact, data and bureaucracy go together. Ever since someone notched a stick or chiseled a stone, we have been collecting data. I might even speculate that writing has been as much about inscribing the written numeral as it has been about inscribing the written word.

Representing data is easier in some respects than representing natural language. For every idiot who scribbles a curse word in the mens room, there’s another idiot who has marked the wall with counting sticks. Data is as primal as language. For the same reason, it’s no less a human creation than language. We have been brainwashed into thinking that data is an accurate representation of the world while the written word is soft and subjective. I disagree: both are human representations of human realities. It’s true that the written word is associated with storytelling while data is associated with science, but they are both symbolic systems. There’s no such thing as pure data.

Data is one of three ways of inscribing the world — the other two being the written word and money — that converts flows into stocks. In fact, that’s the primary function of inscription — it helps us keep track and takes pressure off fallible memories. Inscription also runs the risk of fundamentalism. We are all aware of fundamentalist religion, which one might call the fundamentalism of the written word. We are increasingly aware of market fundamentalism, which is the fundamentalism of money. We aren’t all that aware of data fundamentalism.

There’s a minor version of data fundamentalism that’s been around for a while. It goes by the name of scientism or materialism, depending on whom you ask, but I say it’s minor because it hasn’t affected political or policy realities much. My scientist friends complain about their lack of influence in political circles and the lack of rational thinking in said circles. Social engineering has had a bad rap for the most part.

Data Fundamentalism

That’s about to change, if it hasn’t already. Data driven policy is the new rage. From Obama (and Modi?) winning elections with better data to nudges that make us more virtuous citizens, we are entering an era of data driven societies. The new data fundamentalism threatens to have much more influence on policy makers. As the India Against Corruption protests, the various Occupy protests, the Climate Change protests and the Ferguson protests have shown, there’s a huge gap between the future people desire and the heavy handed response to those who complain. In such a situation, there are two ways of using data:

1. Minority report style nipping dissent before it happens and military style state violence after it does. This is what's happening (or so the promise goes) in fusion centers. 
2. Uncovering people's genuine needs at a fine-grained level and creating customized policies for addressing those needs.

The first is the natural instinct of both the law and order conservative and the best and brightest technocrat. It’s a low trust attitude that feeds back into a low trust response from citizens. The second is what we really need. It’s not a purely technical solution; it’s a political one. Politics can and should work hand in hand with technology. Two hundred years ago, mathematicians such as Condorcet created the voting systems that we now take for granted; so much so that we don’t think of them as technology at all. Why can’t we do that again, except with real time data instead of a vote every five years? I think there’s a great future for data driven approaches to government, but it has to start with data driven citizenship, not data driven services. The government has to be of, for and by the people. Data should only serve to strengthen that claim.

This Week’s Links

  1. Ian Hacking’s book on chance. The best explanation I know of the intimate relationship between data and modernity.
  2. The ethics of data according to the paper of record.
  3. Data hype 101.

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