Big Data and Faith

Finally, secular progressives have something they can believe in. Because Gaia is just too new-agey and earth-mothery for most of us, meditating at the Zen center is actually hard work, Christianity is too darn patriarchal, the outer space adventures are over, and messing around with genetics is actually more terrifying than anything else.

Thank goodness for Big Data, coming along just in time to give us a new fantasy about a future in which we can actually, once and for all, figure out what the heck is going on.

I said it before here, and I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but all of the socioeconomic hubbub about this brave new era of computing, where we can gather SO MUCH DATA about so many things, the consumer behaviors of the masses, biofeedback, etc., sounds more than a little bit religious to me.

Yes, indeed, our devices are small, and powerful. And indeed, we’re spending more and more of our time and energy interacting with them. We are giving them lots of data to work with, and the technology is such that those clicks can all be tracked and quantified, moved around and mapped in visually satisfying and sometimes insightful ways.

And indeed, there is insight to be gleaned from this raw data, when it is processed by powerful machines and talented humans, interpreted and reformulated, presented back to us in an elegantly color-coded map, chart, table or graph.

But the idea that this leads to some kind of ultimate ability to comprehensively understand… anything, is, to me, where the discussion leaps into the realm of faith.

People, humans, have always been able to figure out some things from looking at data, whether it comes from facebook algorithms or observation of the changing tides. Better data can indeed lead to more interesting, insightful, and/or far ranging ideas about how things work. But it seems clear to me that the ideas and the interpretation are still coming from people observing information, not from the information itself.

This is true in science, and it’s true to a great degree in religion as well, I think. The tools we have to make sense of our world have grown more powerful and precise, but they haven’t changed fundamentally, or even qualitatively at all, for that matter.

This essay at the New Inquiry, one of my favorite places on the internet, talks about the ideology of Big Data, and the fact that, just like every other form of knowledge, it relies a lot more on mere subjective humans than its true believers would like to think.

The New Inquiry essay introduced me to the idea of positivism, which is the effort, across disciplines, to gather enough information about the world to actually makes sense of it macroscopically. The idea, in my reading anyway, is that there’s a finite amount of information to gather, and that there will be some kind of tipping point where we finally have enough of it that things start to make real, no-foolin-around, inarguable rational sense, goddammit.

Because living in the world of uncertainty, contingency, subjectivity and mystery can be just too taxing for the modern mind… the idea that the more we learn, the more we realize we really don’t know, and that the vast majority of the unknowns will probably never be resolved, no matter how Big the Big Data gets, is so darn frustrating that we might as well just give up, ya know?

Then, God forbid, we’ll be stuck with the religious, and the superstitious, and the scientists, and the poets and the artists (oh dear), all humbly trying to make just a little bit of sense for one another, while admitting that we are all, in the end, at sea together in the vast unknowability of the universe.

I wonder what it would be like for us, collectively in the secular, progressive Western world, to accept the fact that we don’t have any real answers to questions like, “Why are we here?” or “What’s the point?”

…And moreover, to accept the fact that these answers aren’t coming during our short sojourn here on this beautiful, fragile planet… but the good news is that we get to be here anyway, for now, even though we don’t know much – and that ultimately that’s going to have to be enough, because we don’t really have a choice about it, beyond the possibility of successful self delusion.

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