Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Big Data As Idol

Michael Sacasas makes some interesting connections and proposals in a recent post, Data-Driven Regimes of Truth:
Deliberative democracy works best when citizens share a moral framework from which their arguments and counter-arguments derive their meaning. Absent such a broadly shared moral framework, competing claims can never really be meaningfully argued for or against, they can only be asserted or denounced... [This] is characteristic of secular modernity writ large. The eclipse of traditional religious belief leads to a search for new sources of unity and moral authority.

For a variety of reasons, the project to ground American political culture in publicly accessible science did not succeed... It failed, in part, because it became apparent that science itself was not exactly value free, at least not as it was practice by actual human beings. Additionally, it seems to me, the success of the project assumed that all political problems, that is all problems that arise when human beings try to live together, were subject to scientific analysis and resolution. This strikes me as an unwarranted assumption.

In any case, it would seem that proponents of a certain strand Big Data ideology now want to offer Big Data as the framework that unifies society and resolves political and ethical issues related to public policy... “Science says” replaced “God says”; and now “Science says” is being replaced by “Big Data says.”

To put it another way, Big Data offers to fill the cultural role that was vacated by religious belief. It was a role that, in their turn, Reason, Art, and Science have all tried to fill. In short, certain advocates of Big Data need to read Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Big Data may just be another God-term, an idol that needs to be sounded with a hammer and found hollow.
To these provocative ruminations I responded in his comments section with the following impersonation of a Rorty/Arendt chimera:

Of course, there is no such thing as transparency. Every disclosure, like every assertion, always depends for its force and intelligibility on suppressions. And so, “transparency” is just a current metaphor to figure just those opacities that seem/are deemed (no conspiracies necessary) most useful to elite-incumbency.

There is a real question whether publically accessible science is really equitably accessible when recourse to that science to demand accountability is inequitable. If not, the problem in view is anti-democratizing wealth-concentration not the failure of democratizing publicity.

Similarly, the Foucauldian proposal that disciplinary societies sought to produce/organize “capable bodies” rationalized by reference to a scientifically-legitmated common good may indeed be in eclipse. Big Data seems (instead?) to be producing/organizing targets -- mostly for incessant sales-pitches and for possible eventual prosecution (or even as biometric sigs for drone targeting software). I am of mixed minds whether this mode of subjection is captured by biopolitical vocabularies (Arendt, Fanon, Foucault) or really does takes us elsewhere, to post-humanist/post-biopolitical places.

In either case, again, we do need to foreground the rhetoric (assumptions, conceits, frames, ends) that attends and narrativizes aggregated data rather than fetishize the problematic data-point. Is Big Data truly data-driven, or just profit-driven and police-driven, finally?

I must say I worry that privacy violation figured as unwanted exposure of personal information rather than as the imposition of authoritative interpretations of personal traces/testimonies sets us off on the wrong foot to think what we are doing with Big Data. Exposure is indispensable to public freedom, it is privacy as an isolating privation from exposure (or as reduction to laborer/consumer of privatized commodities) that contains the kernel of totalitarianism. Facticity -- which is not the same thing as information which is not the same thing as data -- is collective and contingent in ways that resist totalization and totalitarian fever dreams.

Digging a bit deeper still, returning to your initial framing of the problem of Big Data, you write: "Deliberative democracy works best when citizens share a moral framework from which their arguments and counter-arguments derive their meaning. Absent such a broadly shared moral framework, competing claims can never really be meaningfully argued for or against, they can only be asserted or denounced." In my view democracy is just the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them -- very much including decisions about what constitutes the public or a decision or a say, as it happens. The need for a shared moral framework for such democracy to work seems overstated. Since I believe we are all of us members of multiple moral communities but always only partially members in each, it isn't clear to me people share broad moral commitments even with themselves let alone with their peers. To think otherwise risks identifying the political with moralizing. I agree that such moralizations of politics are a problem -- in US politics in the age of Fox News, for example -- but I do not think one addresses the problemby accepting its premise.

Possibly it is just this moralistic characterization of democracy that is the Idol we need to tap with Nietzsche's jewelers hammer to find the gem, or with Nietzsche's tuning fork to find the tune -- as you know, Nietzsche never meant "philosophizing with a hammer" to be a matter of Hulk Smash!

The point of departure for the political is the recognition of the diversity of stakeholders sharing the present and hence the need for an interminable reconciliation of ends. The startling realization that this ongoing reconciliation yields a "public happiness" unavailable otherwise sets the stage for Arendt's erotic of politics (part of the reason why I insisted on the indispensability of exposure earlier), but just because it is also an end in itself does not obscure that it is substantively an ongoing testimony to and reconciliation of diversity.

I think it is too easy for philosophers (and I am trained as one, so I try to be especially vigilant about these things) to fancy shared frameworks found working practices when we simply tend temperamentally to find them in making sense of working practices. As a pluralist in matters of reasonable belief -- who thinks both the criteria of reasonable warrant and the domain of reasonable relevance shifts depending on whether beliefs are technoscientific, aesthetic, moral, ethical, political, legal, variously professional and so on -- I don't think people really need to or always do have that hard a time reconciling political differences even when they do not share moral, aesthetic, professional beliefs or what have you.

It may be that a false equivalence of politics with moralizing has provoked the felt need for a shared faithful-cultural, informational-scientific, or data-driven unification of lived diversity, but that false and facile presumption seems to me less interesting than the differing political underpinnings and aspirations distinguishing the rhetoric of data from information.

If "public information" is embedded in norms and forms of informed consent and accountable authority, it is democratizing (which is not to deny it is plenty problematic too) in a way that Big Data seems very much not to be: data is embedded instead in the norms and forms of computability, and hence of calculation from existing premises, of extrapolation from present circumstances, of amplification of given capacities, of enhancement of parochial values, of accumulation of fetishized wealth. Again, this makes me think that marketing and policing are the prior problems here, shaping the aggregation and resulting profiling, framing, targeting associated with Big Data.

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