Below are excerpts from three items that came across my browser this past week. I thought it useful to juxtapose them here.
The first is Andrea Turpin’s review in The Hedgehog Review of Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War, a new book by Andrew Jewett about the role of science as a unifying principle in American politics and public policy.
“Jewett calls the champions of that forgotten understanding ‘scientific democrats.’ They first articulated their ideas in the late nineteenth century out of distress at the apparent impotence of culturally dominant Protestant Christianity to prevent growing divisions in American politics—most violently in the Civil War, then in the nation’s widening class fissure. Scientific democrats anticipated educating the public on the principles and attitudes of scientific practice, looking to succeed in fostering social consensus where a fissiparous Protestantism had failed. They hoped that widely cultivating the habit of seeking empirical truth outside oneself would produce both the information and the broader sympathies needed to structure a fairer society than one dominated by Gilded Age individualism.
Questions soon arose: What should be the role of scientific experts versus ordinary citizens in building the ideal society? Was it possible for either scientists or citizens to be truly disinterested when developing policies with implications for their own economic and social standing? Jewett skillfully teases out the subtleties of the resulting variety of approaches in order to ‘reveal many of the insights and blind spots that can result from a view of science as a cultural foundation for democratic politics.’”
The second piece, “When Fitbit is the Expert,” appeared in The Atlantic. In it, Kate Crawford discusses how data gathered by wearable devices can be used for and against its users in court.
“Self-tracking using a wearable device can be fascinating. It can drive you to exercise more, make you reflect on how much (or little) you sleep, and help you detect patterns in your mood over time. But something else is happening when you use a wearable device, something that is less immediately apparent: You are no longer the only source of data about yourself. The data you unconsciously produce by going about your day is being stored up over time by one or several entities. And now it could be used against you in court.”
“Ultimately, the Fitbit case may be just one step in a much bigger shift toward a data-driven regime of ‘truth.’ Prioritizing data—irregular, unreliable data—over human reporting, means putting power in the hands of an algorithm. These systems are imperfect—just as human judgments can be—and it will be increasingly important for people to be able to see behind the curtain rather than accept device data as irrefutable courtroom evidence. In the meantime, users should think of wearables as partial witnesses, ones that carry their own affordances and biases.”
The final excerpt comes from an interview with Mathias Döpfner in the Columbia Journalism Review. Döfner is the CEO of the largest publishing company in Europe and has been outspoken in his criticisms of American technology firms such as Google and Facebook.
“It’s interesting to see the difference between the US debate on data protection, data security, transparency and how this issue is handled in Europe. In the US, the perception is, ‘What’s the problem? If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. We can share everything with everybody, and being able to take advantage of data is great.’ In Europe it’s totally different. There is a huge concern about what institutions—commercial institutions and political institutions—can do with your data. The US representatives tend to say, ‘Those are the back-looking Europeans; they have an outdated view. The tech economy is based on data.’”
Döpfner goes out of his way to indicate that he is a regulatory minimalist and that he deeply admires American-style tech-entrepreneurship. But ….
“In Europe there is more sensitivity because of the history. The Europeans know that total transparency and total control of data leads to totalitarian societies. The Nazi system and the socialist system were based on total transparency. The Holocaust happened because the Nazis knew exactly who was a Jew, where a Jew was living, how and at what time they could get him; every Jew got a number as a tattoo on his arm before they were gassed in the concentration camps.”
Perhaps that’s a tad alarmist, I don’t know. The thing about alarmism is that only in hindsight can it be definitively identified.
Here’s the thread that united these pieces in my mind. Jewett’s book, assuming the reliability of Turpin’s review, is about an earlier attempt to find a new frame of reference for American political culture. Deliberative democracy works best when citizens share a moral framework from which their arguments and counter-arguments derive their meaning. Absent such a broadly shared moral framework, competing claims can never really be meaningfully argued for or against, they can only be asserted or denounced. What Jewett describes, it seems, is just the particular American case of a pattern that is characteristic of secular modernity writ large. The eclipse of traditional religious belief leads to a search for new sources of unity and moral authority.
For a variety of reasons, the project to ground American political culture in publicly accessible science did not succeed. (It appears, by the way, that Jewett’s book is an attempt to revive the effort.) It failed, in part, because it became apparent that science itself was not exactly value free, at least not as it was practice by actual human beings. Additionally, it seems to me, the success of the project assumed that all political problems, that is all problems that arise when human beings try to live together, were subject to scientific analysis and resolution. This strikes me as an unwarranted assumption.
In any case, it would seem that proponents of a certain strand Big Data ideology now want to offer Big Data as the framework that unifies society and resolves political and ethical issues related to public policy. This is part of what I read into Crawford’s suggestion that we are moving into “a data-driven regime of ‘truth.'” “Science says” replaced “God says”; and now “Science says” is being replaced by “Big Data says.”
To put it another way, Big Data offers to fill the cultural role that was vacated by religious belief. It was a role that, in their turn, Reason, Art, and Science have all tried to fill. In short, certain advocates of Big Data need to read Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Big Data may just be another God-term, an idol that needs to be sounded with a hammer and found hollow.
Finally, Döfner’s comments are just a reminder of the darker uses to which data can and has been put, particularly when thoughtfulness and judgement have been marginalized.