Lesson 5: Truth and Digital Humanity

Watson plays JeopardyWe are just beginning to appreciate how much the huge databases modern technology makes available are affecting our thoughts about truth. Most of us are aware that merchants use them to sell their products. If we look for a pair of shoes online, ads for others pop up on our Facebook for several days. We hear politicians speak of using them to decide on which districts they should focus their resources. By doing so, they can win the electoral college while losing the popular vote. Or, they can gerrymander districts insuring that their party will win the representative election for many years.

Yet, chances are most of us have not given much thought to how databases change our understanding of truth. Broadly speaking, I have been defining truth as the way communities interpret facts– the way they explain the kaleidoscope of sense data that constantly bombard us. Critical, then, are the methods various schools of thought use to understand this data.

Traditionally, communities used a set of beliefs as a standard of truth by which they read the past and the future. In modern times, many people laud science as a more accurate and unifying method than the different ideological views that once competed within the larger community. It reduces all factual experience to that which can be measured empirically. Truth is regarded as a theory that works until something better is discovered.  That discovery is usually made possible by developing more sophisticated machines. For example, nanotechnology was not possible until machines were developed that could detect nanoparticles.

The huge databases seem to play a similar function. Futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe that by 2045 machines will be able to process enough information to come up with the most efficient way to solve every conceivable human problem. Truth will not involve a human conversation but a mechanical analysis. It will be based on how things work rather than human aspirations for the good and beautiful life. A complex array of databases will offer a picture of my true self or a true reading of my community.

We might get a taste of what is happening by the juridification taking place in the legal system. Traditional law codes served as guidelines for justice more than fair ways to settle conflicts of interests between individuals. Justice had to do with an understanding of how people lived together in community. Any reading of the Jewish Torah makes clear it presents teachings that cannot be totally reduced to laws. Take care of the alien in your midst has more to do with attitude than specific commands. Judges used the codes as standards but also applied their wisdom to determine how each offender standing before the bar should pay their debt to society.

Juridification is the attempt to pass laws to cover every conceivable breach of contract between individuals. Those championing this approach claim the capacity of modern computers makes it a real possibility promising more fairness than traditional justice systems. A mechanical machine able to amass enough data and then analyze it adequately will determine truth rather than a wise judge. Notice that values associated with traditional justice have become irrelevant.

A similar understanding is presumed in the digital humanities championed by some in this electronic society. These humanities are not based on the wisdom of the past as determined by conversation in the present. It recognizes no canons such as the Bible or Shakespeare. Truth is not based on standards determined by the community or God but simply on the patterns and trends that emerge in massive data systems. It does not depend upon what we now speak of as critical thinking, but the development of more sophisticated machines. Again, many traditional values associated with Western civilization become irrelevant as machines amass and analyze global information.

In many ways, this sounds to me like the perfection of decision-making based on supposed historical cycles. Some economists make decisions about investments based on these cycles that they take as inevitable. Some politicians do the same in terms of war and peace. They claim after a certain period of peace, war is inevitable. Frighteningly, some of these guys have served at the highest level of government in the past and the present. And, of course, some popular theologians also claim to read cycles in works such as the Book of Revelation. Big Data would be far more able to discern and fine tune these cycles.

Traditional Christian teaching has always rejected this kind of thinking as losing the singularity and sacredness of every person as well as the totality of the whole community that goes beyond the sum of its parts. Beyond that, defining truth as simply the way things are running in this world has always been challenged. Christianity believes humanity’s fundamental problem is a selfish human nature rather than a lack of information. Our hope is transforming that nature rather than developing more sophisticated machines. And, the way to that goal lies in trusting people and God more than placing confidence in machines.

I find myself making an observation and raising a question that illustrates the limitations of using data to discern truth. The observation is that the last presidential election seems to have been won by a candidate who used data to target the required votes and got elected by people who believed he knows what works in this modern world. They were willing to give him their vote even though it was apparent he had no traditional values at all. Supposedly, this should have had a unifying effect by overcoming the ideological divisions of the nation. Instead it has proven to be terribly divisive.

The question I raise concerns whether a sophisticated machine would call for the execution of Jesus and Socrates, the founders of Western society, as enemies of humanity. Contemplating that one provokes all kinds of insights.

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4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Kerry says:

    Wow! This one really hits it out of the park, Fritz!! Thanks!

  2. Fr. Jude says:

    The hypothesis that President Illegitimate or his minions had any kind of professional or even coherent campaign strategy – other than what Himself pulled out of his rectum on any given day – is risible. In fact, there were any number of quotes from Himself , his surrogates and numerous articles in the legitimate organs of the “enemy of the American people” showing nothing but the Trump Campaign’s arrogant disdain for polling and any such data analytics.

    Saddest irony of all: the candidate who best fits the parameters of the hypothesis, whose campaign staff was replete with data wonks and their latest stochastic toys, managed to lose.

    That said, one would be hard pressed to posit any defining causal link between that reliance on the data analysis and the loss, given the evidence of: 1. The popular vote outcome; 2. The hacking into the DNC and other Democratic campaign-related email and subsequent leaks of selected items thus obtained; 3. The three-act tragi-comedy, “The Director of the FBI Has A Secret.” (Actually, as we now know, he had two secrets in his pocket. What did he do? Flip a coin? Maybe, Eenie-Meenie-Miney-Moe?)

    However, it is enough, anecdotally, to underline a “truth” about the evils of Big Data and the machines that master it: it is all done by human beings. The technology has no “valance” for good or evil per se, but what human attribute to the data. The same machine that records and regurgitates your shoe-fetish predilections can be set (and, annoyingly, re-set, as often as needed) to skip all that. And we are all free to turn off the WiFi connection or unplug the wire to the internet. Just like I was always told as a kid, to turn of that “damned TV.”

    Not to mention, there are a WHOLE lot of people who genuinely “like” seeing their extended family pictures and communicating in ways far more personal and personable than a static-laced voice over that party line phone in the kitchen.

    And what is voting, if not aggregating the desires of a large, diverse population so as to arrive at a workable governing structure? As for the “trusting in God” part, I would point to the Holy Roman Catholic Church, which certainly holds itself out to be an institution that trusts in God. But they still have a vote among the College of Cardinals to elect a Pope.

    I get the main thrust of the argument here: trust in real human beings is preferred over just blindly trusting in soul-less, God-less machines. But I’m uncertain as to how to proceed, rationally, then, since one of the other closely-held tenants is that human beings, by nature, are “sinful and unclean.” Like Pilate, I’m trapped between a silicone-chip Rock and a hard-headed Hard Place.

    I trusted in “The American Public” last November to do the right thing, even to the point of shrugging off all those dire predictions that voting machines would be jiggered and the entire election would be rigged and massive cheating by the “you-know-who”s would screw up the vote count. I still got screwed anyway!

    Yes, the machines may screw up my utility bill or my Amazon order, or even be a NON-predictor of the local weather, but I have more to fear (and have had, for most of my adult life) from the voting public (which is, at least so far, all people). The current state of affairs is just so much icing on the sour grapes. Thanks, Fly-over Country!

    Oh, and NO, I don’t think the Machine would execute either Socrates or Jesus (or St. Benedict, for that matter, who may not have FOUNDED Western Civilization, but to hear the Catholics tell it, certainly SAVED Western Civilization from – what? The Vandals? The Goths? Galileo? Whatever!). If nothing else, a heat-tolerance failure in the CPU would render the unit “down” before it could administer The Final Solution.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      I agree we have to be more concerned right now with the humans who program the machines. However. they are already being designed to function in some areas without our agency or approval. Paul, who usually comments via e-mail notes the people around us are becoming more and more passive in their use of electronic devices. The result is fewer really active citizens. Part of our effort should be inciting these to contemplate the issues. I was struck by his observation that in the present situation Jesus very well might be killed as the US has taken to blowing up countries where nonEnglish-speaking brown skinned people reside.

  3. Rita Yeasted says:

    Last week there was a powerful essay in the NYT about Big Data and higher education that has figured out through data how students who are weak in basic math and English comp have a high percentage of not graduating. Duh. But when I saw that a student who gets C in comp is in that group, I was stunned. That used to be “average” performance. No more. It is a “failure” for students (and their sports coaches) . So what are we to do with this “data”? Give students higher grades or stop giving these students who are underprepared (and they are legion) the sort of help that their high schools (and grade schools) did not? And what to make of how we are now judged as a good or bad college if data show that we don’t graduate students in four years or less? Is there any place in that data to allow that many students are working their way through college by holding down 30-hour-a-week jobs, often working all night and then coming to class the next day (if their alarm gets them up). As a college professor, I and my colleagues are constantly complaining about the data gatherers that are driving us into early graves. But Middle States require it because parents and governments demand it–to what end? Do they care that my students just fell in love with “Ragtime” at CMU on Thursday evening and may get to another play on their own dime–or, God forbid, become an adult who will continue to support the arts because they learned to appreciate the power of theater? Some things are hard to measure–I have come to believe that most things are!


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