technopoly and the dictatorship of data

The Sunday book section of the New York Times used to have a feature called “Notes with Pleasure” which excerpted short passages from books.

Here’s one that appeared in 1992, taken from Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.

"The fact is, there are very few political, social and especially personal problems that arise because of insufficient information.  Nonetheless, as incomprehensible problems mount, as the concept of progress fades, as meaning itself becomes suspect, the Technopolist stands firm in believing that what the world needs is yet more information… .  To the question ‘What problem does the information solve?’ the answer is usually ‘How to generate, store and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before.’  This is the elevation of information to metaphysical status:  information as both the means and end of human creativity.  In Technopoly, we are driven to fill our lives with the quest to ‘access’ information.  For what purpose and with what limitations, it is not for us to ask; and we are not accustomed to asking, since the problem is unprecedented."

We have seen many advancements in technology since then (that was, in fact, before the Internet became mainstream), but the same tendencies haunt us.  For example, see the MIT Technology Review article, “The Dictatorship of Data.”  It uses the story of Robert McNamara — who “fetishized” numbers, winding up in a “quagmire of quantification” — to challenge the culture of Google, quoting Douglas Bowman, who said, “When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems.”

With data scientists in ascendance at organizations these days, you can bet that many will overshoot in promoting the promise of their analysis, just as every specialty overshoots when given the opportunity.  That is how promise turns into peril.