2019-01-10

The Horrible, Horrible World Of Data


There's an old blog post out there in cyberspace, somewhere, written by "The Last Psychiatrist," but before he had his own website. In it, he makes the rather interesting point that Sigmund Freud's psychological language reflected the language of his time. One example was the use of words like "pressure" and "stress" to describe psychological states, words that seemingly spring from a world in the midst of an industrial revolution preoccupied with literal pressure and stress in the world of machines. He compared that to the psychological language of the Internet Age, which used terms like "connected" or "disconnected." Interesting, like I said. Google it, if you can; it's worth reading.

It certainly made an impact on me. Over time, I've really come to absorb that concept and adopt it into my interpretation of our present reality. We're no longer living in a world of industrial revolution, and it's clear to me, at least, that we have gone past the Internet Age, too. The internet is still here, of course, but our age is no longer about "the Net." If I you asked me, I'd say it's now the Data Age.

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Data age distinguishes itself from "Information age," which was the Nineties. The information age was all about transmitting information from one place to another, communicating faster, communicating instantly, passing along information.

No, in a data age, we're not so concerned with information. What we want is data, ie. stuff that can be harvested, ETL-ed, relationally databased, processed in a statistical model, and then summarized. And hopefully monetized, ugh.

But in any case, data is the order of the day. We already take it for granted that every system with which we interact when we access computers or phones will harvest data related to that interaction, and then process it somehow. It will end up on somebody's report, and drive someone's decision to do something; most often a commercial decision of some kind.

We take that part of it for granted, but we seldom consider how this has begun to shape our own individual behavior. One example is fitness tracking. Twenty years ago, almost no one cared how many steps they take in a day; nowadays, we dutifully track it. We track our meals and our hours of sleep -- light sleep and deep sleep, and the amount of each is tracked and understood to matter. We track fitness-related things that we never thought to track before, such as the cadence of our running stride (which is useless), and the vertical oscillation.

I've already written about how all this information isn't worth anything unless we can somehow develop computer programs that solve necessary problems. It's junk, basically. It doesn't do you any good to know that 17% of your monthly grocery budget is spent on beef. What would be useful if someone developed an algorithm that was able to identify all the meat and meat-substitutes present on your monthly grocery bill and developed an app that told you, "If you replaced half your monthly beef with chicken, you'd spend $20 less; if you replaced it with squid, you'd spend $30 less; if you replaced it with lentils, you'd spend $50 less." Or whatever the case might be.

The key point here is that having a collection of data is as pointless as having a collection of bottle caps. Unless you plan on doing something with your data, it is senseless to collect it. That's an easy point to make about businesses who store terabytes upon terabytes of data in huge data centers. But it's an even more important point to make for people who dedicate a part of their day to recording their meals, their weight, their time spent reading, and so on.

To be sure, I record every data point that relates to my health and fitness regimen that I possibly can, but I have a reason for doing this. In my case, I'm trying to keep my blood sugar readings as low as possible. Normal people have absolutely no reason to care what percentage of their last workout was in Heart Rate Zone 3. Really, it doesn't matter.

Naturally, this point connects to yesterday's point about paperwork. Paperwork is, at its core, data collection, and we have begun to believe and to act as if action is impossible without some parallel instance of data. We've gone from "I think, therefore I am" to "Without data, there is no record that I thought anything in the first place, therefore everything is data." Granted, that doesn't quite roll off the tongue like cogito ergo sum.

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I started writing this blog post because I was thinking to myself, if today is the Data Age, then what will the next Age be? But in writing down my thoughts, I've shifted my perspective slightly.

Everyone's always talking about "monetizing" what they're doing, as though having ten thousand people view the acoustic cover of "Careless Whisper" you put up on YouTube isn't reward enough, as though those ten thousand people are irrelevant to you unless they become PledgeMusic donors. I think this attitude is crass and self-limiting. I love making money, but it's not everything I do in life. There are some things worth doing merely because they are inherently meaningful: climbing a mountain, making love, teaching your child how to read, listening to the birds in the trees and feeling the sunshine on your face as you drink coffee on your patio on a warm Sunday morning. Some things ought not be monetized. Maybe not even art.

But maybe this modern age of data, of data collection, could turn out to be something that we can make use of. The Beatles are considered the greatest rock band of all time, mostly because there is a historical record that says so; ie., they are thought to be the best because that's what the data says. The data tells a story about the Beatles. Now there can never be "another Beatles," not because four young guys can't make music that good, but because four young guys can't generate 50 years of data that tells the story of their greatness.

…or maybe they can.

One of the big differences between musical artists nowadays and musical artists when I was growing up is their lack of a story. In most cases, this is because there is no story to tell. Pop vixens basically spend their wonder years in voice lessons, then if they're sexy enough they get pitched to a record company that chooses to develop them or not. That's not a story, it's just a sausage-maker.

When I was in high school, I could tell you exactly how the members of my favorite bands met each other, how they developed their musical style, how they went from nothing to something, the story behind the recording of their breakthrough album, and so on.

There's even a bit of showmanship involved in having a story. What's better, "Raj the Magnificent," or "Raj the Magnificent, who tamed three bears with a song when he was just 13, who drank from the waters of Shangri-Upor and kissed the Queen of Daan, and who, after a decade of study under the harpmasters of the Lower Peaks of Cheryn brings his heart-felt lyrical poetry to your home town, for your listening pleasure?"

Not that one should fabricate a story a la Jared Threatin, but why not get your story out there, whatever it is? We're a culture that depends on the existence of data; we trade in memes, because memes are data points; the more memes, the more data; present your ideas as a well-established meme, and perhaps you're one step ahead of the game.

Meme yourself to success!

Ugh, god. I hate the Data Age.