On Data

People talk about all the stuff we’re going to be able to do once computers are fast enough and storage is cheap enough. Sadly, I don’t think technological advances will gain us much. Taken to the limit, the digital world of computers is just the analog world that we already have. And there’s nothing easy about this world.

Computation’s chief strength is that through it we can mechanize human logic. When our thinking fails, the computer fails with us. In every field, we see that the more data we have, the more we have to summarize. We consider central moments, we extract principal components, we make wordles, we weight and sum to get down to a single scalar value. The complex plane is too complex. Give us a number line. We can make judgments there.

Juan Luis Borges considered our desire to “overmodel” in his short story (one paragraph short)¬†On Exactitude in Science, translated by Andrew Hurley and ¬©Penguin 1999.

On Exactitude in Science . . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

Data is not powerful enough to put a dent in our superstition and intuition. Data doesn’t say what’s good and what’s bad. I’m more impacted by a good piece of historical fiction than a social studies textbook. I’d rather develop emotions than crunch numbers.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *