There’s nothing novel in saying that we live in the information age. But what might seem odd is to say that we have submitted our minds to information rather than information to our minds. Have we become slaves to data rather than make data our servant? How would we know if this has happened? Can it happen?
In one sense these questions seem trivial. We are, after all, free people. We think for ourselves. We plan, we live, we act all on our own. But perhaps our sense of freedom is a myth of our consumerist culture. We think what we are taught in class. We act the way our friends act. We shop for clothing to fit in with our friends. We listen to those we consider experts. We justify or condemn behavior based on the current popular moral imperatives. Perhaps we are not as free as we might think we are. Is not a “woke” person still following some narrative that he did not create himself?
We are inundated with mass amounts of information. We have all we could ever dream of at our fingertips. But we do not question the reliability of the information. We simply trust it. For instance, it is well-known that Google curates the results of a search. This is often done for socio-political ends. That automatically taints the results, whether one agrees with the results or not. But is there a public outcry?
A recent metasfresh article covers the data / marketing situation nicely. The scheme for marketing used to be simple: Cover high schoolers, the college crowd, the young-marrieds, and the peak-income crowds. But things have developed to a much greater detail so that one may target more abstract profiles. Hobbies may be tracked according to websites used. The things you quote and tweet about feed into your profile. But not you personally. The data is mined across multiple criteria to create these abstract profiles. The cliche used to be that you were just a number, a meaningless record in a database. Today you are merely a set of data points, a contributor to a grander profile.
The dominance of information has prompted many to anthropomorphize information, to give it human-like qualities. You will probably see it today in a headline or an article’s first paragraph. Information has become the thing that we trust. We assume that it is reliable and that, if it was curated, it was curated by a responsible set of people with no agenda.
These ideas lead us to three myths. They come to us in science, in news stories, and even in ethics. It’s the principle that the information is as clear as 1+1=2. If the information is properly arranged then the implications of seeing this arrangement can lead us to certain inescapable conclusions. The challenge is to ask yourself if this is really the case.
#1 & #2: Science speaks, facts speak
The first and simplest response is the best: Science is not a person. Science cannot speak. All information is interpreted. Whether it’s in a database or in our minds, the information that we process is mined and arranged in a way that leads to conclusions. Few look at the Civil War as merely about slavery. Oh, that was certainly the major issue. But it’s also simplistic. It was also about a libertarian form of government (returning to a confederation of states as we had under the Articles of Confederation prior to the Constitution). It was much, much more. Of course that does not in any way diminish the slavery issue. In fact it makes the slavery issue a richer discussion, for slavery could not be, and in deed was not, dealt with as a simpliciter but as a consequence of a larger worldview.
When we look at the profiles of consumer data we see a jumble of complex information. No database of this magnitude can simply be looked at. Data mining requires a desired output, a report format and structure that is predetermined to meet the needs of the marketing division.
Certainly not all situations are this complex. The simplest situations require interpretation. That’s what legal prosecutions are all about. The facts are arranged for the judge and/or jury to evaluate. But the conclusions are automatic. They are not deductive. The conclusion of a case is to see what is the most probable, the best explanation given the facts available. No one person can do that. It’s why we have juries where multiple minds can evaluate the evidence. If the facts spoke there would be no need for juries.
#3 An ought from an is
“Ought” is one of those words that demands action. The things that ought to be done have an imperative behind them. Things like saving lives, telling the truth, and protecting the innocent provide for our ethical needs. These are some of the duties that we should fulfill. But where do they come from?
One of the “new atheist” claims is that “science” — the study of what is — can lead us to act in an ethical manner. We can be propelled to act in the best interest of others and of society in general. It is an interesting notion and the discussions are longer than may be satisfied here. I only want to point out that science in the late 1800s and early 1900s said that inferior people should be disposed of, that we can help evolution along by cleaning up the gene pool. This movement is still alive and well. It’s one of the ugliest chapters of human history and has seen many hundreds of millions of human beings disposed of as mere waste.
In order to clean up the ethical issue the new atheist generally ignores it. It seems that they like certain things about Christian ethics, certain things about utilitarian ethics, and certain things about the ethics of liberalism. Reading their material (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape) one sees an arbitrary eclectic mix of worldviews. He makes it work but at a price. The price is that it is all arbitrary. There is no need for it to be that way. The ought did not come from the is but from the mind of the author. It was all about the interpretation of the ethical information at hand and how he could arrange it to suit his needs.
It will be a difficult transition for our society to move toward liberty and way from being driven by the mix of Hollywood and Madison Ave. These two change agents. We may have to disconnect, either fully or partly. But I don’t know if we can without appearing to be Amish to the rest of the world.