Dataclysm: A book review by Bob Morris

DataclysmDataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking)
Christian Rudder
Crown (2014)

Noah had his flood and it ended. Now we have ours and it will never end.

To what does the title of this book refer? According to Christian Rudder, “Kataklysmos is the Greek word for the Old Testament Flood; that’s how the word ‘cataclysm’ came to English. The allusion has dual resonance: there is, of course, the data as unprecedented deluge. What’s being collected today is so deep it borders on bottomless; it’s easily forty days and forty nights of downpour to that old handful of rain. But there’d also the hope of a world transformed — of both yesterday’s stunted understanding and today’s limited vision gone with the flood.”

What his book about? “This book is a series of vignettes, tiny windows looking in on our lives — w3hat brings us together, what pulls us apart, what makes us who we are. As the data keeps coming, the windows will get bigger, but there’s plenty to see right now., and the first glimpse is always the most thrilling. So to the sills. I’ll boost you up.” Indeed he does.

In this context, I am reminded of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” included in his classic work, The Republic (Book VII, 514a- 521d). The allegory focuses on a group of people who are chained to a wall in a cave, and have been prisoners all of their lives. They see shadows on the wall cast by figures between them and the source of light behind the figures, outside the cave. (Keep in mind, this is an allegory.) Like Plato, Rudder focuses on the human condition rather than on any specific members of it, such as Noah, and he asks the same questions such as “What is real?” That is a question constantly asked by those who are actively involved with social media, especially OkCupid (of which Rudder is a co-founder) and other matchmaking agencies.

Consider this passage in Chapter 8: “Observed behavioral data is very useful, as we’ve already seen. But there are some things — thoughts, beliefs — that don’t entail an explicit action. And often the ugliest, most divisive, attitudes remain behind a veil of ego and cultural norms that is almost impossible to draw back, at least through direct questioning. It’s social science’s curse — what you most want to get is what your subjects are most eager to hide. This tendency is called [begin italics] social disability bias [end italics], and it’s well-documented: the world over, respondents answer questions in ways that make them look good.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Rudder’s coverage.

o Websites: A briefing on common realities (9-24)
o Human story (reactions on Internet) behind data, Internet usage in U.S. (11-20)
o Ratings (33-41)
o Language on Twitter (59-63, 212-213, and 256-257)
o Embeddedness (77-79)
o Online conversation (86-92)
o Analysis of data, quantitative analysis of racial data on OkCupid (99-113)
o African Americans as Political Candidates, Google search, politics and racism (127-135)
o Negativity on Internet (139-149)
o (Ethnic preferences for words (158-171)
o Homosexuality, Nate Silver (175-187)
o Racial data on OkCupid (197-199 and 2342-243)
o Personal Brands (209-219)
o Collection of data, government surveillance of data (226-236)

Technology really is our new mythos and will continue to be, at least for a while. It is important to remember, however, that the visionary founders of dataclysmic companies – Hewlett Packard, Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Alibaba – companies that continue to dominate the global marketplace, should not be viewed as “tech gods” or “titans.” I agree with Christian Rudder: “We should all do well to remember this. All are flawed, and mortal, and we all walk under the same dark sky. We brought on the flood — will it drown us or lift us up? My hope for myself, and for others like me, is to make something good and real and human out of the data. And while we do, whenever the technology and the devices and algorithms seem just too epic, we must all recall Tennyson’s aging Ulysses and resolve to search for our truth in a slightly different way. To strive, to seek, to find, but then, always to yield.”

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the abundance of information, insights, and counsel that Rudder provides but I hope that I have at least indicated why I think so highly of his book. How serious are the nature and extent of the dataclysm? According to Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, “From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated five exabytes of data. Now we produce five exabytes [begin italics] every two days [end italics]…and the pace is rapidly accelerating.”

New technologies — especially if they are disruptive technologies — can enable us to process data in increasingly greater quantities, data that can help us to make decisions but only we can make decisions that are, hopefully, in the best interests of the human race. Decisions to help achieve a “world transformed” to which Christian Rudder referred. That is indeed a great challenge, to be sure, but also a glorious opportunity. Noah dealt with his flood and now we must deal with ours. Are we up to it? I agree with Rudder: “I like our odds.”

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