Data Humanism

This morning, largely thanks to being sober after last night’s concert [1], I was able to watch Billy Beane graciously speak to our audience. He was full of humor and humility about his intellect and the way he came to respect the use of data. In listening to him speak, I was struck by a large part of the need for data-driven decisions, including the fact that we are so blinded by surface appearances that we often fail to focus on the fruits, that is, the measurable results. This is true whether one is dealing with questions of morality or questions of baseball or business. The eye test is unreliable and subject to massive bias. Billy Beane was able to take advantage of data, including inventive newer statistical approaches, as a way of overcoming limited means. If you’re not rich or strong, you have to be smart.

Later on, data architect Jer Thorpe gave a beautiful presentation with breathtakingly beautiful data. Beyond the data itself, though, was the question of our complicated responses to data. There is a lot of fear about data and its control, but data is only of use if it can be personalized, and it can, to scary degrees sometimes, and to entertaining and useful degrees at other times. It may be creepy when Target exposes someone for being pregnant, or when advertisers can get a close idea from your online activity as to who you are, but, at the same time we are impressed by Amazon’s precise regulations, or an online experience that shapes to our wants and interests. Data is more to be welcomed if it is owned by us, rather than collected by us by others whose motives we do not trust. Data is more to be welcomed if it is relatable and beautiful than if it is seemingly impractical and alien. Yet ultimately, data itself is neither moral nor immoral; what is moral (or not) is the means of collecting data, and the ends and purposes and uses to which that data is put. The essential problems are moral in nature, rather than merely technical.

After lunch I became one of the founding members of the Domo dojo, committed to building a community of data scientists interested in helping each other out. Service, community, and communication are all matters that seem to come naturally to me. It was nice to see the gamification of the website we were working with, and to develop a social identity in service of a worthy cause of helping people live better informed business lives and be able to understand and work with their reality better. I managed to chat with the fellow from Lithium who was in charge of the lab when we were both on our way to the airport in the van, and he was intrigued at how publishers sometimes used Klout, a technology his company owns, as a way of determining who influential people on the internet are, and thus who gets to receive extra privileges, like the ability to review two books at once, such as the last piece of swag I collected from Domopalooza this year [2].

All of these problems reminded me of something I thought about on the flight home this afternoon. My passions for knowledge and learning, for growth and justice are all interconnected. My interests in communication, my compulsive friendliness to those around me, the way I serve as a node and connector between others, all helps allow me to appreciate the use and importance of data better, as well as the need for one’s use of data to be governed by humane and moral principles of conduct. Where this road will take me is impossible to say, but I feel as if I am going somewhere, and if it is not a path of my own making, it is at least a path that is going somewhere, and that gives meaning and worth to the struggles of my existence regarding trust, love, communication, justice, and so on. Let not these trials be wasted. It is not enough for us to be smart, to be clever, to be cool. We must also be good. If we seek to change the world through our insights, we must know that the world we create will not be a horror, when what is inside our minds is put into practice on the outside. Such a task is worthy of our greatest efforts.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/09/concert-review-robin-thicke-ludacris-kid-ink-04-08-2015-domopalooza-salt-lake-city/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/book-review-does-it-work/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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11 Responses to Data Humanism

  1. Pingback: Founding Members | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Your pursuit is the essence of Matthew 10:16, for even as you are sent out as a sheep among the wolves, you must be wise, yet harmless. A “sheep” in Biblical terms is one who is imbued with spiritual, moral righteousness. Your role as a streamlining clearinghouse addresses the screening process of an inanimate object that can be used or abused. It goes all the way back to the two trees–and the matter of human choice. The good and evil of subjectivity (situational ethics) causes the application of any object to be in jeopardy of misuse. It might be said that the tree itself wasn’t the issue, but disobedience to the command not to eat of it was. As a result, the human heart and mind cannot differentiate between the aesthetic and the moral, and fear abounds when those in charge are afforded much power.

    The trade-off in a technical-driven society is its morality, for greater inroads to its capabilities often outweigh the aspects of whether such action should be taken. This is when the objective, spiritual beacon is vital–for it alone will define what is “good.” I feel that your networking and current function serve to apply this principle in a hostile environment, will later cause them to call to mind that a moral clearinghouse was once possible, and will ultimately bring them to you as their instructor for honest and upright communication amongst themselves with the highest clarity and integrity.

  3. The whole exercise comes across as man’s best attempt at objectively arriving at the best conclusion through the interface of data, intuit, and analytics. However, the interpretive nature of the beast cannot be excised, and man remains unable to work out the dysfunction between words–the ideals–and the reality; our human behavior. Being placed in such a high, decision-making position of power and responsibility is tempting and leaves the gate open to pride creeping in.

    Futuristically, when given the power to effect necessary changes, the Beast will provide its data gathering and human resources findings to implement its logical conclusions. Obedience will be its morality, for the pride of its strength will determine its ethics–to its inevitable end.

    • As human beings everything we develop can be used for good or evil purposes. Unfortunately, the power to do good better also means the power to do evil more effectively and more completely. We cannot escape the moral aspects of our lives and our world.

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