Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Can Data Tell Us Who We Are? And Does It Matter?

Christian Rudder’s book Dataclysm explores who we are when we think no one is looking – our lives told through every Google search, tweet, Facebook like. He is one of the founders of OKCupid, an online dating site; data, he says, unlike surveys or small scale experiments doesn’t merely tell you what people say they prefer, but shows how they actually act and interact in private. This information, he argues, is not only useful for selling and surveillance, two of the most common practices at present, but it also tells “the human story.” Rudder’s idea “is to move our understanding of ourselves away from narratives and toward numbers, or rather, to think in such a way that the numbers are the narrative.” He promises to “put hard numbers to some timeless mysteries” that had previously been considered “unquantifiable.” His title captures this grand vision for data use: data is not only an “unprecedented deluge” but “the hope of a world transformed – of both yesterday’s stunted understanding and today’s limited vision gone with the flood.” 

So what are the “timeless mysteries” that are uncovered? Using millions of pieces of data, he reveals the “nexus of beauty, sex and age.” As she ages, women find older men attractive. For men, no matter his age, a women’s at her best when she’s in her very early twenties.  Although people say they aren’t racist, they make choices and draw conclusions according to race. Woman are overwhelming judged by appearance. We pick on the weak. These are the “facts that need facing,” Rudder says, proved by the data that will “ends arguments that anecdotes could never win.”

It seems naïve to hope, however, that more proof of racism, sexism, meanness as an act to inflate importance, even with incontrovertible facts, will change actions. In education, we know the Big Data stories well. They, too, aren’t new stories. Here are a few: if you live with poverty or with a learning exceptionality, if you belong to one of the involuntary minorities, then your likelihood of success in our current system is limited. The data, however, even when gathered in the millions, while noisy with never-ending streams of information about “what’s wrong” and “what works” is silent about how to change actions in the future.

Still, more data has become the new answer to every question. Gathering data, of course, feels like action – parsing, graphing, creating colour graphs, pointing fingers. I’m not sure there are any fresh insights to be gleaned at scale, though. We simply get confirmation of what we already know. All the surprises exist on the edges, after all, the outliers and anomalies, the information outside of our data entirely. Big Data, Rudder argues, lets us tell the story of Everyman. Perhaps. But how can Everyman’s story help us? In schools, we become mired in inevitability (what can you and I do about poverty and its grip on the future of our children?); we see the deluge of “facts that need facing” instead of the child who surprises us, if we pay attention, by being entirely unique, unexpectedly extraordinary (I haven’t met a child, yet, who isn’t). 

What we need in the midst of this deluge of data that tells us that we bully the weak, our children aren’t learning and our prejudices continue are heroic stories to remind us of how we can act differently anyway. We need to see the one child, never data sets, who looks at us in hope, her big brown eye flooded with despair, and know this: we must move mountains today so she can learn unobstructed by prejudice tomorrow. No other data is necessary.  

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