Data vs. knowledge: Why only the wise understand the difference

You are leaking data, and absorbing it, says Yale historian Timothy Snyder. But for whose benefit?

Timothy Snyder:I think that history is a way of dealing with data. One of the things I’m really struck by when I give lectures in Silicon Valley, for example, or when I talk to people who are doing things—that I’m very impressed by, and I’m not going to say that I completely understand them—but one of the things I’m struck by is a certain kind of naïveté that data automatically produces knowledge, which it doesn’t at all.

I mean the total amount of data in the universe is the total amount of data in the universe. How we choose to conceptualize it, categorize it, that’s up to us. And creating larger and larger databases doesn’t actually solve that problem. On the contrary, it can persuade people that quantity is somehow going to automatically become quality, which just isn’t so; it’s just not true. One of the things I’ve become a little bit stuck on or even obsessed with is the idea that people who are, for example, going to be computer science majors or engineering majors should take some kind of humanities minor, that there should be a history or a philosophy or whatever, a minor or major so that they don’t stop thinking about the questions of right and wrong, or the questions of the why and not just the how.

Because people who are very accomplished in fields that involve data, I’m going to put this very directly, they often sound very naïve when they talk about questions of why. And this is true of people who have made a lot of money in fields involving data as well; they get to a point where they can have a great deal of influence on the world, but often, and again I’m just going to be very direct about this, the way they talk about the world and the way they’re going to exercise an influence on it can be startlingly naïve from a humanities point of view. There are going to be whole swaths of the world which they think they see but they really don’t. And there’s a whole second problem here, which I’m just going to name and you can do with it what you want, and that is the way that we are data producers and not just data consumers. I think that freedom involves the ability to know something about how your own data is being used; or one way in the 20th century to think about freedom is: what’s the balance between the data I’m unknowingly launching out into the world all the time and the data that’s coming back at me? One way to think about the current risk of un-freedom in this country and it generally is “I am leaking all kinds of objective stuff, which can be used against me.” I mean in trivial ways like by giving me a worse hotel room or whatever, but also in significant ways by targeting political messages to me.

But what’s coming back to me may be very subjective in the sense that it’s designed to manipulate how I see the world. Getting that balance right I think is essential to freedom. I mean some of the stuff that launches out for me should not just be data that’s going to allow people to run protocols to figure out how to manipulate me, some of the stuff that comes out for me should be like, what’s really good for me? And some of the stuff that comes back to me shouldn’t just be these manipulative indices, it should be the facts that I actually need to be a good citizen. For me that’s an interesting balance between humanities and technology. And what I’ve noticed is that since we don’t think about it this way we basically punted on the whole question by accepting this “politics of inevitability” that the Internet is going to mean enlightenment, more data means better understanding, and so on. Since we punt on that question we find ourselves I think in a very precarious position where that humans are actually just kind of holding on by their fingernails to a sense of being individuals while a whole lot of data is basically being used against them all the time.

So again, I don’t want to be a fatalist about this, I think it can be solved, but I think thinking about it that way like as a balance where the data that comes out of me has to be governed by some notion of rights. And I would also say the data that comes back at me has to be governed by some notion of rights. I think people do have a basic right of access to factuality or maybe we should be thinking about a basic right of access to factuality because without that, without access to data that makes sense to an average citizen at the right time it’s very hard to have any of the other rights, or the other rights, I think, are very hard to maintain.

  • It's naive to think that data automatically produces knowledge, says Yale historian Timothy Snyder.
  • Data scientists should study the humanities to see the world more clearly, and gain the wisdom to wield data.
  • Perhaps the next basic civil right in the U.S. should be controlling your own data, and having basic access to easily understood facts.

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