A quantitative ideology? James Bridle on an algorithmic imaginary

The excellent artist James Bridle has written something for the New Humanist, which is published on their website, entitled “What’s wrong with big data?” Perhaps he’s been reading Rob Kitchin’s The Data Revolution? 🙂 Anyway, it sort of chimes with my previous post on data debates and with the sense in which the problems Bridle so incisively lays out for the readers of his article are not necessarily practical problems but rather are epistemological problems – they pertain to the ways in which we are asked to make sense of the world…

This belief in the power of data, of technology untrammelled by petty human worldviews, is the practical cousin of more metaphysical assertions. A belief in the unquestionability of data leads directly to a belief in the truth of data-derived assertions. And if data contains truth, then it will, without moral intervention, produce better outcomes. Speaking at Google’s private London Zeitgeist conference in 2013, Eric Schmidt, Google Chairman, asserted that “if they had had cellphones in Rwanda in 1994, the genocide would not have happened.” Schmidt’s claim was that technological visibility – the rendering of events and actions legible to everyone – would change the character of those actions. Not only is this statement historically inaccurate (there was plenty of evidence available of what was occurring during the genocide from UN officials, US satellite photographs and other sources), it’s also demonstrably untrue. Analysis of unrest in Kenya in 2007, when over 1,000 people were killed in ethnic conflicts, showed that mobile phones not only spread but accelerated the violence. But you don’t need to look to such extreme examples to see how a belief in technological determinism underlies much of our thinking and reasoning about the world.

Quantified thinking is the dominant ideology of contemporary life: not just in scientific and computational domains but in government policy, social relations and individual identity. It exists equally in qualified research and subconscious instinct, in the calculations of economic austerity and the determinacy of social media. It is the critical balance on which we have placed our ability to act in the world, while critically mistaking the basis for such actions. “More information” does not produce “more truth”, it endangers it.

You can read the whole article on the New Humanist website.

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