RFNE Essay: The Limits of Data

A number of items this week all point to a common theme: data is not to be pursued for its own sake, nor just to make a profit. If data is just about data, or about money, then it is dangerous and destructive.

In the first place, Adolf Eichmann’s plea for leniency is a disgusting example of just how data and data managers can be dangerous. Eichmann’s entire defense to his participation in the extermination of six million human beings boils down to this: I was just an “instrument” – I  was only concerned with doing the task before me in the most efficient manner. That is what data-driven decisions are – pieces of larger puzzles, value-agnostic morsels. There is reason to believe that Eichmann, like his fellow Nazis, was lying about his knowledge and role in the death camps. However, even taken at his word, we should be greatly disturbed by the power that role identification and the drive for efficiencies can play in life.

Take education, for instance. The Atlantic published a terrific essay this week on introverted teachers and students being left out by 21st century education. The focus was on meetings, group standards, and professional learning communities (places where teachers sift through data and adjust to it). Much of the revolution in education is informed by data – frequent testing, standards-based learning, and evaluations based on student performance. It’s a system anchored only by changing data, and not by any commonly held belief or sense of value. What this fails to consider is the purpose of education and what it is that students are learning.

For many, the purpose of school seems blindingly simple – learn some skills so you can get a job or pursue what interests you. But that form of education leaves too much to chance: what values does this form of schooling teach? That work and financial success are the ultimate ends?

The question of ultimate ends was taken up by another terrific essay that appears in the New York Times Opinionator section this week. Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle write in When Philosophy Lost its Way that philosophy, which used to deal with ultimate ends and how to live, now is held captive by the notions of a research university. Namely, that all subjects are created equal and that the end goal is to publish – in order to maintain your financial position, one assumes. Frodeman and Briggle believe that this jeopardizes the long history of philosophy as something grounded in real life and the problems of living well. He notes that in Ancient Greece and Rome philosophy was not taught in an ivory tower, but rather in public places where it was accessible to much of the population. (As an aside, one of the most famous philosophies of that era, Stoicism, was founded by a former slave, Zeno, and the word “Stoic” refers to where the first Stoics gathered to debate and learn – the pillars of the marketplace.)

Frodeman and Briggle argue that there is something lost in focusing only on the technical:

Like the sciences, philosophy has largely become a technical enterprise, the only difference being that we manipulate words rather than genes or chemicals. Lost is the once common-sense notion that philosophers are seeking the good life — that we ought to be (in spite of our failings) model citizens and human beings. Having become specialists, we have lost sight of the whole. The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good.

All of these pieces point to bad news for our Western world. We are in a period of existential turmoil and yet we are educating students not for dealing with big problems and value-driven decisions, but for the managerial problems of data management. We are also living in an era that minimizes the role and accessibility of philosophy and morality-driven living. This gravitational pull towards data and away from philosophy may very well be leading us into dangerous territory – where we are shaping a generation habitually oriented to efficiency, performance and data without core convictions. What then? Are we setting ourselves up for a future of Eichmanns, or less dangerous but equally unfulfilling lives as “men without chests” as C.S. Lewis once said?

Lest we believe we’ll be saved by the aggregators of the massive amount of data, we should consider that our American system is built on skepticism towards accumulated power. Frodeman and Briggle remind us that the folks behind science are just like us, only with technical degrees:

The individual scientist is no different from the average Joe; he or she has, as Shapin has written, “no special authority to pronounce on what ought to be done.” For many, science became a paycheck, and the scientist became a “de-moralized” tool enlisted in the service of power, bureaucracy and commerce.

If we’ve already lost faith in our institutions, as recent polls suggest, are we ready to put unlimited faith in techies who crunch our numbers and tell us how to change our lives for only the price of an app, or an even more rewarding monthly subscription?

So, what can be done? This problem is too big to proffer a quick fix. However, we can and should start with demanding more substance out of our classrooms – not just a system obsessed with scores, but geared toward thinking and ultimate ends.

We should also insist on pursuing meaning and wisdom in our daily lives. Is modern philosophy lacking, as Frodeman and Briggle point out? Then we should as individuals dive in to the greats. Many of the works are available for free online or as inexpensive paper editions. We don’t need to be experts, but we do need to take responsibility for our way of life.

Whether you consult religious texts, Plato, Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Hume, Locke, or Rousseau, or the Eastern traditions, you should consider the following: how can I live a life of purpose? Do I have a sense of direction? Do my values align with my actions? Am I paying attention to how I affect those closest to me?

Instead of aggregating data, I propose we collect this information in a single low-tech device: put the thoughts generated by that reading and by your daily living into a journal. Assess your progress in living honestly and review it from time to time. That seems to me how we can build reflective, values-driven lives we can be proud of – and a way to inoculate ourselves against the dangers of living without an anchoring principle.