Are we our data?

In a WSJ article of September 13, entitled “We are all quants now”, Paula Cohen, professor and dean at Drexel University, uses an anecdote as a lead to her premise.  A young girl, age 7, completes a drawing at home.  When asked if she is pleased with it, she replies, “I don’t know.  I’ll take it to school tomorrow and see how many “likes” I get.”  Ms. Cohen’s essay goes on to explore the concept of a quantitative self versus a qualitative self.  In my book, I explore the issue of establishing an authentic self in the face of an assault of external definitions of who we are by others.
see my book“)  Being defined by the data collected by others is one more example of an in-authentic definition of self.  At least for now.

This external quantifying of who we are would not be so invasive if we could ignore it.  But as the seven year old has already embodied, the external quantification has already taken hold of her self-esteem.  By using the term “likes” she is merely using the jargon of her time.  But children have always done this: taking in the responses of peers and adults to their actions or choices and gauging themselves by it.  Only when they become teen-agers do they disregard that adult response while at the same time doubling down on their peers’ valuations.  To measure who we are by “polling” is a road to acceptance, but not necessarily, authenticity.

Authenticity requires us to turn inward not outward.  We can discover our inward authenticity by outward sojourn as did Huck Finn, but one must always keep the compass inward. The Australian “walkabout”, though transversed over the vast countryside, is always about self-discovery, the inner self.  We have always been surrounded by external quantifiers:  grades, test scores, stopwatches, nicknames, shoe-sizes, blood pressure, cholesterol, and so on.  But we always must face the difficult task of assessing whether any of that captures what is true about our inner self.  How much of the inner self is dependent or defined by these external quantifiers.

To those who quantify us for their own purposes, the “authentic self” doesn’t matter.  If they can accurately gauge your movements and your purchases, they are more than satisfied.  And if that data is consistent they can sell it to merchandisers for a handsome profit.  Does the merchandiser care about your inner, authentic self?  Perhaps.  If they get closer; they profit more.  Is your perfume or cologne choice an emanation of some inner truth?  Is your choice of color some revelation of inner self?  Is the car you buy some emanation of who you are? Perhaps. Does the quant merely have to refine his data more discreetly, or mine newer data in order to come ever closer to that evanescent true self that we all believe we hold in secret?  Once the quants have access to our Facebook pages, and our Twitter accounts, do they grow ever closer to quantifying a complete simulacrum indistinguishable from the original?  Is there, in fact, a true “you” floating somewhere out there in the data-miners universe that they merely have to “assemble” more discreetly?  Scary.  Maybe the inner self is not so unreachable by the quants.  When they get to “gotcha”, we are all algorithms, and authenticity is lost.  If our authenticity can be found by others, is it lost to us?



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