Everywhere I turn, articles, seminars, news reports and scheduled seminars focus on the issue of data. The article Sunday morning in The Washington Post by Craig Timberg entitled, “Trump campaign consultant took data about millions of users without their knowledge,” begins with Facebook’s recent suspension of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that evidently played a key role in President Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Cambridge Analytica had claimed that it was at the pinnacle of marrying the art of political persuasion to the science of big data by tailoring advertising to the psychological traits of voters, in this case, political messages and fundraising requests married to political dispositions through psychographic targeting. The company boasted of possessing 5,000 data points on every American.
I am not here concerned with the ethics of privacy (improperly sharing data and failing to destroy private information), the ethics of spying given the covert character of data, the tactics, the accuracy of using five selected basic traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, to develop correlations, the lack of regulation of this Wild West frontier of human knowledge or the effectiveness of these correlations, however valid any one of those questions may be. Quite aside from the immoral and probably illegal use of data from tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission or knowledge, and using that data for nefarious political purposes, the specifics are even more frightening with tales of Alexander Nix, the recently suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and his cohorts caught openly claiming to have used shadow companies as fronts, using bribes, sex workers as traps and a host of other unethical practices to advance the position of the company.
My focus is the significance of the effort in gaining access to the psychological profiles of an estimated 50 million Americans and equivalent numbers in other countries. For example, on the issue of effectiveness, Cambridge Analytica claimed that its data modeling and polling showed Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest and shaped a homestretch strategy that led to his upset wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The actual as well as potential for undermining Western democracies is important and leaders of populist parties, like the Five Star Movement in Italy, which won 33% of the Italian vote in the 4 March elections and has been the first major digital political organization in the world, boasted that the dawn of electronic populism has come ending the era of liberal representative democracy. Luigi Di Maio: “You can’t stop the wind with your hands.” Digital means and digital data are combined to revolutionize politics and supposedly return power to the people.
This morning, I also received an email inviting me to attend the Walter Clarkson Symposium. The keynote address by Deborah Stone addresses the “The Ethics of Counting” and the day-long symposium itself will focus on: “The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The issue: how data is collected to result in policies based on evidence-based decisions to produce statistical methods and models relied upon for policy decisions. The advocates promote such data for the ability to reduce complex realities to objective and comparable metrics. Critics suspect the evaluations.
The effects on humans clearly extends into the economic sphere. Last evening, I attended a symposium of top Canadian applied economists focused on prognostication or prophecy, the core purpose of the data age according to Jill Lepore. The economists looked at the tea leaves of fiscal and monetary policy, housing and taxation as well as trends and forces affecting the value of the Canadian dollar to paint a relatively bleak picture of the Canadian economy based on each of the economist’s efforts at large data crunching.
The reliance on data as a primary form of knowledge and determinant of policy has a definite history which Jill Lepore argued began with photography in the nineteenth century. Initially, I found this ironically to be counter-intuitive, but her point was that the era of facts correlated with the Sanctuary of Truth, of numbers correlated with the Sanctuary of Method, was succeeded by the primacy of large data that, in my argument can be correlated with the university as a Social Service Station. The reason Jill pointed to film was because photography in the late nineteenth century was used as evidence. This was coterminous with the decline in faith of eye-witnesses in identifying individuals involved in crimes. As our senses were undermined, though data had not yet filled the vacuum, the first steps had been taken to displace our senses and prepare the ground for the empire of data.
Ironically, according to Jill, these first efforts were used for utopian reasons – to undermine the case for the ill-treatment of the Negro in the U.S. At the same time, the effort established the pathway to indirect evidence and that a “picture was worth a thousand words.” James Frye developed the lie detector in the 1920s to show that a compilation of data in one’s body, of which we were not consciously aware, could be a more reliable detector of lying than that of any so-called expert at “spotting” lies. Orson Wells radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” seemed to prove that in the age of radio one could no longer rely on one’s ears any more than one’s eyes.
The negative efforts to disenfranchise the senses had prepared the ground for the age of data which began in 1948 with the invention of the computer following the secret work at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes in Britain during WWII. Bletchley Park has been commemorated in a number of films, especially Enigma in 2001 with Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows and Dougray Scott, but even more effectively in The Imitation Game (2014) staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. The government code and cypher codebreakers learned to penetrate the German and Enigma ciphers, an impossible task without the use of a proto-computer. The “Ultra” intelligence produced undoubtedly shortened the war.
UNIVAC was put on display in 1951. It was used in a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film, Desk Set (originally a William Marchant 1955 play), in 1957 to show how facts could be established using such a device far faster than relying on human observations and analyses. Spencer Tracy plays the “electronic brains” engineer who manages EMERAC (the Electromagnetic MEmory and Research Arithmetical Calculator). Katherine Hepburn plays what will become an obsolete “fact checker.”
JFK would become the first television-age politician when “The Simulation Project” was launched in 1958 to determine what policy positions would turn on voters and which would turn them off. Data had entered the age of political manipulation. But numbers still reigned even as data sciences rose in academe to claim not only that data knew faster, but that it knew better and, even more importantly, that only data could tell us some things – such as the key elements of sociology – demographical distributions – and economics – such as the material I heard last night correlating falling single house prices in the GTA with rising condo prices with speculative investing with numbers of overseas investors to create a graph of demand and supply correlated with market prices. This was not just a matter of adding and correlating numbers, but of employing algorithms to knit the data together and produce a formula for predicting shifts in market pricing.
It was no surprise, in line with Gauchet’s analysis, that these economists all seemed at heart to be committed to neo-liberalism. When you marry a Trump regime that seems to have no respect for a balanced budget and engages in redistribution of wealth to the rich – quite aside from is impulsive, unpredictable and shape-shifting character – with the Trudeau regime in Canada also based on deficit financing and a redistributive rather than growth budget, but one dedicated to serving the middle class rather than plutocrats, then the outlook has to be pessimistic and even more pessimistic for Canada that is in such a vulnerable position, exacerbated when it does not cut corporate and individual tax rates to compete with the Americans.
However, economic suicide is not the same as political enslavement. In 1989, a London think tank gathered vast quantities of data about an audience’s values, attitudes and beliefs, identifying groups of “persuadables,” and targeted them with tailored messages. In the 1990s, the technique was tested on health and development campaigns in Britain and then extended to international political consulting and defence. Those were efforts at control at the same time as data was being collected and spliced and diced to careen everything out of control.
An algorithm invented in 1999 by a graduate student at the University of Waterloo was used to bundle mortgages together and sell them as tranches, a system which began to reel out of control in 2003 as salesmen and bankers promoted the products without an iota of understanding or even any ability to develop such an understanding, of precisely what they were selling. For it was based on a computer projection and different taxonomic tools to create a new species of monetary instruments. The economic bust of 2007-08 that followed almost brought down the whole international economic order. As indicated above with the story of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, privacy, so critical to the age of the Sanctuary of Truth and the age of facts but also to the world’s public in general, became a major casualty. The world of data seemed to produce greater calamities than benefits, especially for the ordinary man or woman.
As also indicated above, we are entering a new age in which evidence-based medicine in numerous fields can be handled better by the computer than by highly trained individuals. But, at the same time, as data is crunched and analyzed in ways no ordinary human can do, falsification becomes barely detectable until the economic house comes crashing down. As also indicated above, the data predators have emerged out of the woodwork who, like termites, are currently eating through the foundations of our homes. It should be no surprise that paranoia increases, which in turn can be exacerbated by the complexity, inaccessibility and control over parts of our lives and its overall trend towards decontextualizing. History itself gets thrown into the waste bin of history. As the speakers said at last evening’s symposium, Canada has the highest proportion of its population with tertiary degrees but also the highest level of unemployed educated individuals. In a day of data, who needs historians or philosophers.
What is the link to data as a new foundation stone of evidence for a university. Some believe the issue is not evidence, but the wearing of blinkers to ward off unwanted information. As Heather MacDonald noted, we not only educate large numbers who cannot get jobs comparable with their degree of education, but we also bring up our children without the appropriate values of character and resilience (characteristic of the teaching in the Sanctuary of Truth) needed in such circumstances. “Instead, we merely validate them. From their earliest days of school, we teach them that they are weak individuals in need of constant therapeutic support. In England, the ‘safe space’ pedagogy was introduced in elementary schools long before students began to demand safe spaces at universities. High school students were told that they didn’t have to listen to lectures about suicide or other difficult subjects because they were likely to be traumatized. So by the time they enter university, students have become entitled to this kind of protection and validation. They actually feel that they have a right not to hear words that jar or challenge them, and that speaking these words is a cultural crime.”
It is the world of the data-based university as a Social Service Station that I will explore tomorrow.
Tomorrow: The Primacy of Data and the end of the Social Service Station