Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Data is Not Greater. Part 1.

Take a walk to Central Park one sunny weekend and you'll see thousands of runners and bikers of all shapes and sizes, of all different speeds and oxygen capacities, and most of them are strapped to some sort of device that measures about 93 different functions of what they're doing.

Likewise, watch sports on TV, or read an article on sports, and these days it seems like you're dealing more with a data dump than a contest or game.

When I was a boy playing baseball, you knew when you or someone else crushed a ball. You knew by the very sound of ash meeting horsehide.

You knew when someone had a homerun swing. You knew when a pitcher was throwing aspirins.

Today, we have data to quantify all those observations. We know the exit velocity of a ball off a bat. We know the angle of ascent of every batted ball. We know the miles per hour and spin rate of every pitch thrown. 

Has the game improved? Has performance improved? Is viewing or playing more fun? 

Are we better at it?

Just now, I read an article in The New York Times about track stars, perhaps the most-quantified of athletes, ditching their digital tracking devices and just running.

Some of the athletes interviewed in the Times' article said things like: 

“The runs just felt so much longer. That was one of my main problems with it. I wasn’t enjoying myself or looking around. Instead, I was kind of looking at the watch every quarter-mile to see how much longer I had left.”


“I hated that every run I went on, I felt like I had to check my pace and my distance and whatever else. So I just decided that I was going to lay off it for a while...”


“There’s something nice about slowing down and writing it by hand that I find almost endearing. It’s taken a while for me to be less neurotic, but it’s liberating.”

I think there's a larger point here.

I think in running, in much of sports, and certainly in advertising and marketing data has become not merely a tool--like a rung on a ladder--but a Holy banner. We've rallied around the shibboleth of data like medieval Crusaders rallied behind flags that proclaimed "IN HOC SIGNO VINCES." "In this sign, we will conquer."

When creeds are followed as the one true way, whether they're religions or data analytics--people regard them as the truth, no matter what. Just as slaughtering non-Christians and subjugating whole continents was encouraged and endorsed by the sign of the Cross, insulting and badly crafted work is encouraged and endorsed by the stamp of data analytics. 

"It's boring but the data says it works."

"Being followed by ads annoys people, but it works."

"Stealing peoples' data for surveillance purposes is unethical and just wrong and possibly illegal, but it works."

A millennia ago we might have ratified dumb behaviors because they were done under the aegis of certain religious dogma, today we do the same because they're ratified by certain quasi-data-verified dogma.

But let's go back to the quotations above and pull some small bits from them--to make a point.

I wasn’t enjoying myself or looking around." 

“I hated that every run I went on”

“There’s something nice about slowing down and writing it by hand that I find almost endearing.”

In other words, for too long too many too often have been following logic, not common sense. Or we stopped thinking and started obeying.

We've used the allegedly omnipotent veracity of data to legitimatize the propagation of work that's not only boring, it's also insulting.

Holding Companies (Churches) and their Priests (CEOs) have bought data company after data company like clerical administrations incorporated diocese after diocese to spread their "truth."

In their wake, they've destroyed, despoiled and denigrated the values they were founded to uphold.

I know that's a lot to take away from an article about ditching your running watch. But that's what happens when as a child you were kicked in the head by a horse.

Take it from me, that hurts. 

At least that's what I remember.

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