Cloudy Logic

Robin James, The New Inquiry, Jan 29, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes

A few talks ago I cause a twitter in the audience by comparing big data analytics to astrology. It was no more than a half-formed thought, but as it turns out I'm not the only one who has had this thought and this author - via the mediation of Thomas Adorno - has given it substance. Robin James writes, "Scaled up in size and in processing power, big data could be the realization of what Adorno called 'the potential danger represented by astrology as a mass phenomenon.'" Their apparent objectivity allow them to be represented as value-neutral - but "astrology rearticulates unfashionable superstitions in the occult, in mysticism, and so on, by presenting them in empirical rather than supernatural terms—star charts and tables, for example. Upgrading the medium in which they are expressed, obsolete social myths gain new life as apparent fact." Just as does big data analytics. "Down-to-earthness is precisely the problem with forecasting: It only ever reproduces society and its most conventional norms, values, and practices. All that data up in the cloud opens no new vistas; it just repackages tired social, political, and economic institutions (white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy) in new, hip abodes on more seemingly solid ground." Yeow!

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