Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

There's a beautiful video circulating the web, one of many, about the dangers of too much technology. Standing in front of a dramatic sunset, a poet warns us that "Technology has made us more selfish and separate than ever" and "connection has gotten no better." He calls Facebook an "anti-social network."

It's another voice in a genre of guilt, a logical backlash to the flood of smart and mobile devices that have taken wealthy and industrialized nations by storm.

The rapper's heart is in the right place, but I get the feeling that his claims arise from truthiness based on anecdote rather than solid evidence. Anecdotes like spotting a mom on her tablet at the park. Or a guy in a restaurant looking at his phone instead of the woman with him.

Who knows if we are actually more selfish and unconnected than we have ever been? How does one measure selfishness? If we look at rates of charitable giving, we are donating more than ever.

Consider the possibility that we all are selfish to different degrees and the new devices are the same as any toys that people have ever used to escape from others. Books, movies, television, video games, the Internet -- they have all been excellent vehicles for escapism and avoidance, as well as for communal pleasure, inspiration and learning.

One of the many things I loved about Christian Rudder's new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One Is Looking) (besides the stand-up one-liners and his disarming tone of self-deprecation) is how the mathematician author takes conventional wisdom, like the idea that technology is changing us for the worse, and turns it on its head. And he accomplishes this via a most powerful scientific tool -- the epically enormous flood of digital data. Rudder analyzes a few bits of the countless clicks, Likes, online profiles, Google searches, geographical data, online purchases and other thousands of clues to our inner lives that we leave on the sites we know, love and use.

Not only are his results fascinating, but they shed light on how poor were the prior tools of sociologists - "asking people survey questions or contriving small-scale experiments." Seems no exaggeration to call Dataclysm a sign of a revolution in social science and the way we understand our existence and ourselves.

So back to those conventional ideas that Rudder mythbusts. (Yes, I'm using the verb form of "mythbusters.") One of my favorites is the idea that the Internet is degrading our writing skills. Rudder counters with:

The Internet has many regrettable sides to it, but that's one thing that's always stood it in good stead with me: it's a writer's world. Your life online is mediated through words....No matter what words we use or how we tap out the letters, we're writing to one another more than ever. Even if sometimes dam gerl is all we have to say.

(Pause for a quick laugh.)

Anyboo, I want to write more about how Rudder compares the most common words in the Oxford English Corpus with Twitter and found Twitter concentrates language to be more expressive with less and there's more to write here and more but it's late and I am going to Kansas City tomorrow to see Aunt Ruth who is back in the hospital again with heart pain. So I need to wrap this up and pack and put the kids to bed.

But one more personal note to contradict the negative press about technology, unconnectedness and selfishness. I won't be home for the next few days, but the girls will be safe and sound. Every day after school they are staying with dear neighbors who volunteered to help feed and amuse them, help with homework and soothe their fears. Neighbors who saw one of my posts and volunteered via Facebook. 

You can read more discussions of Dataclysm at From Left to Write on Thursday. I received an advance reader's copy of the book but the opinions here are my own.

1 comment:

Thien-Kim aka Kim said...

I hope your Aunt feels better soon. I do appreciate that technology gives sociologists more access to data from people of color as past studies often used white men for their data.