Stop mining!

Deeper data shafts just produce useless piles of waste

Artillery Row

My career has straddled two quite different worlds. I spent the first half teaching English in secondary schools and the second working in sales, business development and consultancy, often to do with technology and always within the world of education. On the one hand I write books about poetry, and study the most sophisticated objects human beings can create with words, yet much of my work sees me interrogating crude numbers generated largely by machines. More and more over the years, I’ve felt I have a foot in increasingly antithetical camps; one highly individual and human, the other corporate and mechanical. 

It was shortly after I published my first book, I left teaching for business, not because of my writing but entirely because of technology. At the time it seemed to me that technology was going to completely change the nature of schooling and I decided that rather than be on the receiving end, I’d prefer to be influencing that change. Now, over two decades later, my naivety seems kind of endearing.

I have a foot in increasingly antithetical camps; one highly individual and human, the other corporate and mechanical

In the interim, I’ve spent a lot of time working under the bonnet of an industry that has had an astoundingly revolutionary impact on our social, intellectual and cultural life and the conclusion I’ve reached is that the climate really does have to change, just not the one we’re all focusing on. There’s an elephant in the room that’s anything but endangered, and that’s data. 

Wordsworth and Blake are just two of the poets who I can’t help feeling watched the burgeoning industrial revolution devastate the beautiful English landscape they loved, with a combination of horror and impotence. I think I know how they felt because that’s precisely how I feel when I reflect on what this more recent, data-driven technological revolution has done to the world I used to know. It’s taken us almost three hundred years to fully grasp the appalling disfigurement of the natural world that the industrial revolution brought with it. Almost three centuries later we are only just beginning the real process of trying to reverse that global act of unbridled vandalism. It’s been a long time since astute capitalists first started plundering the earth for coal and then oil, with not a thought for the possible side effects. The more recent revolution driven by Silicon Valley businesses may have appeared clean, but the polluting data it has spewed into our social, cultural and intellectual lives is, I believe, every bit as appalling, and I fear long lasting. I suspect we will be cleaning up after it, for decades. 

But before we can take even baby steps in that direction, we need to understand what has really happened. Political attempts to rein in global technology businesses, like the Australian government’s spat with Facebook, only serve to illustrate how poorly politicians understand the nature of the problem. They are so immured in it themselves they are a major part of it, and all because they’ve swallowed wholesale the quintessential lie this entire technology revolution was built on. 

Mathematics is the only human endeavour which commonly satisfies our desire for truth. Less than three decades ago the computing industry took that fact and turned it into a truly brilliant marketing strategy. In every imaginable commercial, public and private space available, anywhere there was an opportunity to sell software and machines, the industry told its customers that data equals truth. And who doesn’t want to know the truth? They were so mind bogglingly successful that data quickly became the lifeblood of the entire revolution. It’s now the fuel that pumps through every server farm and microchip; the commodity that makes everything else work. And just like the oil industry, it has brought with it some terrible by-products. Alchemists only promised to turn base metal into gold, the computing industry did it with ones and zeros. 

Regardless of the field, whether it’s science, education, psychology, history or economics, technology commerce operates in exactly the same, omnipotent way, selling data as neutral evidence, as pure, inviolable fact. It really isn’t. It’s a delusion: the data delusion. And until people understand that it is a delusion, it will continue to pollute, undermine and disfigure all our social, cultural and intellectual lives. 

There is no more striking illustration of the havoc this delusion is capable of wreaking on ordinary people’s lives, than how scientists and politicians globally have responded to a pandemic. In the UK we’ve seen “led by the science” quickly superseded by ‘data not dates,’ both phrases symptomatic of the data delusion.  

There may have been no vaccine, no drugs and a shortage of PPE but the one thing governments were drowning in from the starting gun was data. Yet this obscene wealth of technologically-generated data still can’t tell us whether wearing masks is a sensible precaution or a health risk; or how to record deaths from a specific infection, in a way that isn’t wide open to dispute. Contrary to the battle cry of the revolution, data never invests any argument with greater force or value merely because it is data. Every act of generating or collating data is a subjective act, every bit as dependent on the human mind as interpreting it is. Until a real live, flesh and blood homo sapien has it in their possession and decides what they want to do with it, data is meaningless; every bit as dead and inert as crude oil. 

No matter how many times the sales teams chant their magic spells around “AI” or “algorithms” machines do not make choices without human instruction and those instructions are subject to individual or, at best, team preferences, bias and predispositions. 

If we are to clean up the way data has polluted all our lives, we have to radically re-evaluate the part it plays in how we live. We need to switch our focus from the data, to the story someone is telling with it. Instead of imagining data as something neutral, something with independent force and authority, we need to understand once and for all that there is no such thing and never has been. This is not easy to do when voices everywhere urge us to trust statistics. 

The safest way to think of data is in much the same way we think of language: it’s just another medium that people use, to communicate their own thoughts and crucially their desires, to us. It has rules and conventions of its own which statisticians, like linguists, are free to study, but crucially; knowing lots about statistics does not mean you will ever come any closer to the truth, any more than someone who knows lots about language will.

The safest way to think of data is in much the same way we think of language

To explain just how fragile the data delusion really is, try this thought experiment. First of all, remember that spooky feeling you get when an ad pops up on your phone offering you something you’ve actually been vaguely thinking about. Now imagine for a moment you spent just a few minutes every time you go online, screen shopping for things you have no interest in whatsoever. Sit back and browse through all the Aston Martins, Ferraris or Cartier earrings you’ll never own. If you live in a flat, have a look for some gardening tools or sunbeds. If you hate dogs and would rather risk root canal treatment from Bugs Bunny than have a labradoodle sitting on your sofa, spend a while searching for a cute puppy. Now imagine everyone did that, for just a few minutes all over the world, every day. What price all that precious data now? 

Now I know, because I’ve seen under the bonnet, exactly how the industry would respond should such a rebellious event ever happen. We just need to adjust the algorithm, recalibrate the variables to account for new behaviour. Or in other words, we just need to focus more on the figures than the reality. But when you’re more interested in the data than the people, what use are you to the people? 

Just as we have finally grasped after centuries, that not all manufactured goods are good for us, we need to grasp that not all data is worth mining. Much of it should be left in the ground. Outside of science, much of the academic world behaves not that differently from the businesses that manufacture all those frivolous products advertised by shouty voices on daytime TV. If your focus is on the data, you end up doing dangerous things to the real world. Instead of thinking effectively about educational challenges faced by poorer children you create acronyms like FSM, free school meals, and NEET, not in education, employment or training, then generate and discuss data about them, in an entirely spurious effort to convince yourself and others you are helping. Like the manufacturers of all those pointless consumer goods no one really needs, the only value derived from the activity goes to the small number of people who manufacture the data. The real kids concerned never attain any significance other than as figures on a spreadsheet or points on a graph.

As consumers, we need to stop worshipping (and literally buying) data as truth

As consumers, we need to stop worshipping (and literally buying) data as truth, especially in every field outside of the most rigorous sciences, where its deployment has become a lazy substitute for reasoned argument, and see it for the rhetorical device it really is. We need to unite and invert the data food chain, so that instead of businesses being able to strip mine it and sell it on at hugely inflated prices, we reduce its market value by recognising it’s no more valuable than a memorable logo, a skilled piece of copywriting or a striking image. In future, when anyone asserts, “The data tells us,” what we all need to reply is, “Data doesn’t talk.”

The man who handed me my first degree was a long dead British politician. I’ve always remembered the key message he had for the hundreds of other humanities graduates that day. He said never let anyone question the value of studying for a degree in english, history or languages, because while science and engineering graduates are busy changing the world, you’re the people who must ask the hard questions about whether or not change is what we want. 

On so many occasions in my past career, I was never given any opportunity to ask those questions, but as a writer I get to, so I’m doing it now. Do we really want to continue living under this destructive delusion, letting technology businesses use data to pollute and usurp the real lives we live, or do we want the climate to change?

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