Data Does Not Equal Knowledge

This is an amazing paragraph:

Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.

It comes from “Among the Disrupted,” a New York Times book review by Leon Wieseltier. It’s about the dangers of technology and the likely death of humanism—not even solely in its secular, carpe-diem version, but as a very possibility, whether Hellenistic or Judaic or anarchic in origin, given that everything is quantifiable (or is purported to be), in a digital Domesday Book kind of way. I just looked up how many sheep are in the United States, and got a precise answer, cataloged by state. Not that mystery is categorically a virtue, but can we really measure “quality of life”? It’s not the same as life expectancy. Sometimes I wonder if the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria was a good thing or a bad thing. But then I remember that the knowledge it most likely contained was not “data”—at least, not in any way resembling the modern sense—but philosophical investigations of the truth: deep time, deep space, deep ecology. Or maybe the scrolls were just inventories of grain stores all along. And were people mistrustful of them?

One thought on “Data Does Not Equal Knowledge

  1. That particular library withstood more than one attempt at destruction and was eventually reincarnated so maybe it could be seen as a symbol of hope?

    One of only two psychologists to ever receive the Nobel was Daniel Kahneman. When you look at the politics behind what he does that fact becomes unsurprising. He was really recognized for his contribution to economics: basically saying that humans are irrational decision-makers. Though Edward Bernays (the inventor of the Public Relations field) beat him to that conclusion a long time ago. I thought the violence of the last century (his great legacy) was the epitome of de-humanization and that it couldn’t really get worse but it kind of looks like we are sinking even further into a terrible muck. We need humanist lifelines and the arts now more than ever.

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