Responding to the excessive claims of data enthusiasts requires a critical framework, a framework that historicizes their claims. Mathematicians such as Brian Rotman, Rebecca Goldstein, and Amir Alexander have done exactly that. Their work offers a methodological model for understanding the sometimes misguided aspirations of data fetishists. Below is the abstract of an essay authored with Chris Gilliard and forthcoming in Boundary2.0.

The New Pythagoreans

A student's initiation into mathematics routinely includes an encounter with the Pythagorean Theorem.  The theorem describes the relationship between the hypotenuse and sides of a right triangle in simple terms: the sum of the squares of the sides is equal to the square of the hypotenuse, i.e., A2 + B2 = C2.  The simple formula and its companion image of a generic right triangle are offered as an interchangeable, seamless flow between geometric “things” and numbers. Their elegant visibility creates what W. J. T. Mitchell would call a “hypericon,” a visual paradigm, that “in their strongest forms . . . don't merely serve as illustrations to theory; they picture theory” (49). In this sense, the Pythagorean Theorem asserts a central belief of Western culture: that mathematics represents or embodies an extra-human realm, a realm of fundamental, unchanging truths apart from human experience, culture, biology, or neuro-linguistics. The dynamic flow between the image of the right triangle and the formula transforms mathematical language into something akin to Christian concepts of a prelapsarian language, a “nomenclature of essences, in which word would have reﬂected thing with perfect accuracy” (Eagle 184). As the Pythagoreans styled it, “the world is number.” The theorem schools the child into an uncritical faith in the rhetoric of numbers.

While the mathematical claim would prove problematic, the notion of an extra-human, stable reality would resonate in the later Greek philosophers. Even though mathematics itself has abandoned such notions, the mathematical rhetoric underlying big data often retains the trace of these pre-modern ideas, a residue that imparts power to its naive claims. Their claims embed similar notions about the re-presentational power of numbers, and about mathematical completeness and consistency. These enthusiasts participate in a discredited mathematics, but they do so in powerfully nostalgic ways that resonate with the amorphous Idealism infused in our hierarchical churches, political structures, aesthetics, and epistemologies. Thus, big data speaks through the residue of a powerful cultural framework to create credibility.

For these New Pythagoreans, mathematics remains a quasi-religious undertaking whose complexity, consistency, sign systems, and completeness assert a stable, non-human order that keeps chaos at bay. This nostalgia for an imaginary order shapes the lure of big data and algorithmic black boxes, quantification, and all the rest. These assert a rhetoric of numbers which grants mathematics authority in all things, but it is a mathematics whose naiveté can mislead us. This naiveté proves vulnerable when de-naturalized in two ways: first, by appreciating the mathematical issue itself, a task that requires a rudimentary understanding of Kurt Godel's work in the 1930s and a recognition of the semiotic frameworks offered by Rotman, Alexander, Badiou, DesRosiers, and others; second, it requires a recognition that “big data's” claims about a variety of issues – predictive policing, renting and credit scores, parole decisions, education technologies, teacher assessment, and curricular design – often embody a deep nostalgia for complete and consistent re-presentations of a knowable real, a nostalgia anxiously embedded in Western traditions of mathematics and the continued misunderstanding of it as natural and infallible.

Digital Culture

nostalgia for an imaginary past