Nate Silver is probably one of the best popularizers of big data and how effective it can be at understanding and creating meaning. Today, there is a manifesto on FiveThirtyEight which does several things very well – it outlines the need for more data literacy, justifies how journalism needs to embrace big data and understand it in order to effectively disseminate knowledge, and gives a basic “how and why this works” guide on rigorous data collection and analysis for journalism.
It’s a really good article, with lots of great points. But there is something there between the lines which I think reflects a contemporary paradigm shift. First, there is the “condition of virtuality.” N. Katherine Hayles described virtuality as “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns.” There is a dualistic conception of information/matter and a relationship where control over the information leads to control over matter. Coding is an act which invokes new realities, as in the case with computer programing and gene sequencing, but it can be performed wherever there is access behind the user interface.
…codes, which normally remain invisible to the nonspecialist, are nevertheless felt and intuitively grasped by the user, in much the same way that the earth’s gravity is felt and intuitively understood by someone who never heard of Newton’s laws, Apples fall down; it takes effort to climb mountains, As inhabitants of cyberspace, we similarly under stand in our muscles and bones that space belongs to the computer, and flow belongs to the user. – Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Condition of Virtuality.” In The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, edited by Peter Lunenfeld, 320. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000.
Silver writes about Brian Burke and Peggy Noonan’s “anecdotal and ad-hoc” approach to data, which resembles a gut reaction or an almost spiritual belief. Burke believes that statistics can’t measure “perseverance” in hockey players. Noonan falsely believed Romney would win the 2012 election, because the “vibrations” were right. Both of them had a poor (or nonexistent) grasp on any numbers – apparently hockey leagues do a poor job of compiling data and I would argue Noonan has vested interests in promoting a specific viewpoint regardless if it can be confirmed by numbers.
Both Burke and Noonan (and the rest of us for that matter) are experiencing the world through a perspective we have been socialized to – a “habitus” and “hexis” as Pierre Bourdieu describes. “Bodily hexis is political mythology realized. embodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable way of standing. speaking, walking, and thereby of feeling and thinking.” As for the habitus,
Every speech act and. more generally, every action, is a conjuncture, an encounter between independent causal series. On the one hand, there are the socially constructed dispositions of the linguistic habitus, which imply a certain propensity to speak and to say determinate things (the expressive interest) and a certain capacity to speak, which involves both the linguistic capacity to generate an infinite number of grammatically correct discourses. and the social capacity to use this competence adequately in a determinate situation. – Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Edited by John B Thompson. Translated by Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991.
We have a cultural perception of the world enforced by standardizing or normative language. The language we use is wrapped up in the “social magic” of words, in how they create and shape reality. We have a psychological predisposition towards narrative, and Silver is to be lauded for leading the attack against journalism’s apparent love of opinion and anathema towards real numbers except as anecdote. However, when we approach the condition of virtuality as a new habitus, how does it alter our existing cultural perceptions of reality?
Evgeny Morozov (personal feelings aside) is a leading critic of big data and Silicon Valley solutionism. Although his critiques can be a bit intense and polemic while talking about computerized trash bins seems silly, it is the perfect critique in this scenario. How does data-driven analysis reshape the hexis? What does data-driven behavior and the condition of virtuality mean, for a population where linguistic mythology and meaning is still an integral part of our psychological and subconscious process?
We understand the world through our flawed experience – but big data promises to replace it with the “perfection” of big data. I very much doubt this means the Peggy Noonans of the world will stop writing in their self-interest, but I do believe that there is a presupposition of objectivity in data journalism that directly conflicts with the broken “view from nowhere” that we have been operating under. The new journalism was transparency in place of objectivity, and data science also holds a promise of transparency.
Yet data has a politics we do not always acknowledge. Silver does, for a moment, in conjuring up Ray Wolfinger’s quote, that “The plural of anecdote is data” and stating “data does not have a virgin birth.” Can I be a little more blunt? Data are bastard children. The scientific community has feet of clay when it comes to research and publication which leads to the distortion of science. Professors and researchers are crushed by financial obligations and rush to present findings, resulting in exaggerating, hyping, lying, bias, and conflicts of interest. This is not to say that all data are faulty – just that the pretense of including data in journalism somehow excludes various forms of media/political bias is ludicrous.
But back to my main concern, if – and I stress if, because it seems unlikely – somehow our cultural perception shifts to preference virtuality, resulting in data-driven behaviors, is this the society we want? The algorithm world seems to be a place much in line with Hans Moravec’s Mind Children – in that, we are information patterns and not bodily presences. In the information/material duality, we are matter and not spirit. This flows nicely with scientism and much of the public disdain for superstition, but as Hayles writes, “We already are cyborgs in the sense that we experience, through the integration of our bodily perceptions and motions with computer architectures and topologies, a changed sense of subjectivity.”
The question is then, just how much do we want to change our current OS before we understand the one we have right now? How well do we know the security risks of the update? These are things experienced users ask – there have been pushbacks to “updates” (Windows 8, FCP X, Dungeon Keeper iOS) and instead of reading Nate Silver’s manifesto and nodding our head, saying “yes, data journalism is the future” we should also think about how it conflicts with the present and our habitus and hexis.