Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley
Dickens on Big Data
This essay first appeared in Re/Code in May 2014.
While some writers like to imagine what Plato would have said about the Googleplex and other aspects of current society, when it comes to life regulated and shaped by data and algorithms, Charles Dickens is the one to ask. His novel Hard Times is subtitled “For these times,” and his exploration of oversimplification through numbers certainly makes that subtitle apt again.
Hard Times is set in a fictional Victorian mill town in which schools and factories are purportedly run based on data and reason. In Dickens’s days, the Utilitarians proposed a new take on ethics, and social policies drew on utilitarian views. Hard Times has often been called a critique of utilitarianism; however, its critique is not directed primarily at the goal of maximizing happiness and minimizing harm, but at the focus on facts/data/measurable things at the expense of everything else. Dickens was excoriating what today we would call algorithmic regulation and education.
Explaining the impact of “algorithmic regulation,” social critic Evgeny Morozov writes about
… the construction of “invisible barbed wire” around our intellectual and social lives. Big data, with its many interconnected databases that feed on information and algorithms of dubious provenance, imposes severe constraints on how we mature politically and socially. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was right to warn — in 1963 — that “an exclusively technical civilization … is threatened … by the splitting of human beings into two classes — the social engineers and the inmates of closed social institutions.
Dickens’s Hard Times is concerned precisely with the social engineers and the inmates of closed social institutions. Its prototypical “social engineer” is Thomas Gradgrind — a key character who advocates data-based scientific education (and nothing else):
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of fact and calculations. … With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weight and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.
Today he would carry a cellphone in his pocket instead of a multiplication table, but he is otherwise a modern man: A proponent of a certain way of looking at the world, through big data and utopian algorithms.
Had Dickens been writing today, would he have set his book in Silicon Valley? Writers like Dave Eggers do, in novels like The Circle, which explores more recent efforts at trying out theoretical social systems on vast populations.
Morozov frequently does, too, as in his article “The Internet Ideology: Why We Are Allowed to Hate Silicon Valley,” where he argues that the “connection between the seeming openness of our technological infrastructures and the intensifying degree of control [by corporations, by governments, etc.] remains poorly understood.”
Dickens was certainly concerned by the intensifying control he observed in the ethos of his age. “You,” says one of his educators to a young student, “are to be in all things regulated and governed … by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it.”
Fancy, wonder, imagination, creativity — all qualities that can’t be accurately quantified — may indeed be downplayed (even if unintentionally) in a fully quantified educational system. In such a system, what happens to the questions that can’t be answered once and for all?
As Dickens puts it, “Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder.”
And what about the world beyond the school? In Hard Times, the other people subjected to “algorithmic regulation” are the workers of Coketown. Describing this fictional Victorian mill town (after having visited a real one), Dickens writes:
Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The … school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.
The overarching point, for Dickens, is that many of the most important aspects of human life are not measurable with precision and not amenable to algorithmically designed policies. “It is known,” he writes in Hard Times:
… to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants…. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, for ever.
Does the exponentially greater power of our “calculators” challenge that perception? Does big data mean “no mystery,” even in human beings?
We are buffered by claims that Google or Facebook or some other data-collection entities know us better than we know ourselves (or at least better than our spouses do); we are implementing predictive policing; we ponder algorithmic approaches to education.
As we do so, Dickens’s characters, like Thomas Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa, call out a warning from another time when we tried this approach. In a moment of crisis, Louisa (who has been raised on a steady diet of facts) tells Gradgrind, “With a hunger and thirst upon me, father, which have never been for a moment appeased; with an ardent impulse toward some region where rules, and figures, and definitions were not quite absolute; I have grown up, battling every inch of my way.”
In Hard Times, all the children who are shaped by the utilitarian fact-based approach, with no room for wonder and fancy, are stifled and stilted. Eventually, even Gradgrind realizes this. “I only entreat you to believe … I have meant to do right,” he tells his daughter. Dickens adds, “He said it earnestly, and to do him justice he had. In gauging fathomless deeps with his little mean excise-rod, and in staggering over the universe with his rusty stiff-legged compasses, he had meant to do great things.” But this is not a Disney ending; Gradgrind’s remorse does not reverse the damage done to Louisa and others like her. And the lives of the algorithmically-governed people of Coketown are miserable.
In a recent Scientific American blog, psychologist Adam Waytz uses the term “quantiphobia” in reference to the claim that creativity is unquantifiable. He describes himself as “bugged” by such claims, and wonders “where such quantiphobia originates.” He then writes that
… both neural and self-report evidence show that people tend to represent morals like preferences more than like facts. Getting back to the issue of quantiphobia, my sense is that when numbers are appended to issues with moral relevance, this moves them out of the realm of preference and into the realm of fact, and this transition unnerves us.
Is it irrational to be “unnerved” by this transition? What Waytz fails to address is the assumption that numbers or facts provide greater or more objective truth than unquantified “preferences” do. Of course, the process through which “numbers are appended to issues” is itself subjective — expressive of preferences. What we choose to measure, and how, is subjective. How we analyze the resulting numbers is subjective. The movement into the realm of fact is not equivalent to a movement into the realm of truth. The refusal to append numbers to certain things is not “quantiphobia”—it is wisdom.
This is not to dismiss the very real benefits that can be derived from big-data analytics and algorithmic functions in many contexts. We can garner those and still acknowledge that certain things may be both extremely important and unmeasurable, and that our policies and approaches should reflect that reality.
Dickens throws down a gauntlet for our times: “Supposing we were to reserve our arithmetic for material objects, and to govern these awful unknown quantities [i.e., human beings] by other means!”
Photo by Wally Gobetz, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.