Life in the time of data

With very few exceptions, Data Science and Machine Learning as they exist today are about optimizing processes. We mostly predict likelihood or target resources better or categorize things. Sometimes using fancy algorithms and at others using basic generalized linear models. But in general we expect the cartoon of our past to predict our future.

There is plenty of criticism this data driven culture is subjected to. Much of it comes from uninformed people in social sciences. Their objections are often trivial. A far more important and troubling objection is: this reduces civilization to actually optimize status-quo and not advance. The most famous example of such refutation is Kepler and his laws of motion. That was uniquely a human insight that no algorithm can arrive at; even today. And it was essentially insight from data. Almost no one will argue they can design a system, with how many ever clever back propagation networks, to arrive at what Kepler did from the data he had. No one’d even claim we’d reach a stage where algorithms can do that any time soon in the future.

The point of that example is: do we no longer contemplate about data sets as deeply as Kepler might have simply because our belief in algorithmic processing of data is so strong that we see no merit in holding the entire data set in our heads? We possibly see that as data equivalent to rote learning; a waste of critical brain resources that can be freed for doing higher things.

A related aspect in our modern lives is the absence of intellectual silence. We’re often surrounded by things and people often far more impressive than ourselves. It almost sounds rude to think one’d think for oneself when the finest of the world on that exact topic is ready to speak to you, albeit in a lecture or podcast, in the device you hold in your pocket. It’s unlikely that one is going to out-think what’s available in one’s pocket. But what seems the honest thing to do in that instance certainly makes our overall epistemology suffer a lack of originality. It’s easy to imagine a world where originality of thought is rare and we’d all be poorer because of it.

A useful technique then is to possibly alternate between these two states by consciously allocating their specific times. But any such a-priori allocation of time for categorizing thought sounds awfully arrogant in itself. We could possibly model ourselves on, say, Kepler. And apportion our consumption of thought and thinking accordingly. Which defeats its own very idea. We certainly live in difficult times.