Why the Nate Silvers of the World Don't Know Everything

Love-Child of Cassandra and Sisyphus1/07/2014 12:28:40 pm PST

The opening paragraph sort of pours cold water on my interest in this piece:

By now, nearly everyone from the president of the United States on down has admitted that the National Security Agency went too far. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the rogue NSA contractor who has since gained asylum in Russia, paint a picture of an organization with access to seemingly every word typed or spoken on any electronic device, anywhere in the world. …

Clearly, overstatements.

The article on the whole appears to be lamenting the increased use of modern computer and communications technologies in the hands of those highly skilled in such fields like operations research, and how the new abilities to target individuals via analytical tools is hurting society.

But, this objection is not really a new one, I think. Isn’t this just an extension of the criticisms outlined in Adam Curtis’ The Century of The Self ? The ability to now micro-manage the marketing of ideas follows in the footsteps of the micro-marketing of products.

The last paragraph presents what I consider to the false dichotomy underlying the whole article:

That’s what a good synthesis of big data and human intuition tends to look like. As long as the humans are in control, and understand what it is they’re controlling, we’re fine. It’s when they become slaves to the numbers that trouble breaks out. So let’s celebrate the value of disruption by data—but let’s not forget that data isn’t everything.

This idea of being a “slave to the numbers” is a false one - the use of highly detailed near-realtime financial trading or political campaign tools is not being a “slave” to anything but what has always been: the human desire to control others.