The rationalist fantasy of 'big data'

From Austin Storm
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Modernity has long been obsessed with, perhaps even defined by, its epistemic insecurity, its grasping toward big truths that ultimately disappoint as our world grows only less knowable. New knowledge and new ways of understanding simultaneously produce new forms of nonknowledge, new uncertainties and mysteries. The scientific method, based in deduction and falsifiability, is better at proliferating questions than it is at answering them. For instance, Einstein’s theories about the curvature of space and motion at the quantum level provide new knowledge and generates new unknowns that previously could not be pondered.

Since every theory destabilizes as much as it solidifies in our view of the world, the collective frenzy to generate knowledge creates at the same time a mounting sense of futility, a tension looking for catharsis — a moment in which we could feel, if only for an instant, that we know something for sure. In contemporary culture, Big Data promises this relief...

The rationalist fantasy that enough data can be collected with the “right” methodology to provide an objective and disinterested picture of reality is an old and familiar one: positivism. This is the understanding that the social world can be known and explained from a value-neutral, transcendent view from nowhere in particular.

Nathan Jurgenson, View From Nowhere