‘numbers beat no numbers every time’ (John King, personal communication)
“… peremptory quantification risks begging all the big questions” (Neer and Kurke, 2020: 4)
In the millennium between about 2500BCE and 1500BCE, a persistent question in China for confucians, taoists and legalists was how to interpret the meta-division between the original undivided and the world which we could only apprehend through divisions or names. Did action flow from being attuned to the One directly, or through marshalling the many in resonance with the One? (Cheng, 1997, esp. Ch.6-8). Over the past few hundred years in the West – broadly conceived to include every direction, really – we have been moths circling the bright flame of division of the world into named entities we can collect data about.
Before we decide on any course of action, we need to dissect, enumerate and manipulate ever finer divisions of reality. The great censuses of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries both of the natural and the human world proposed a (particular) hubris of particulars: if we can measure, count, quantify we can build a statistical state of society and of nature which conforms to our Way (Tao). Data, that which is given about us, will be analyzed and will (re)turn us to the good ordering of society and nature. An n-tuple vision both vain and virtuous, noble and nefarious.
I shocked myself the other day. I was giving a talk about citizen science projects in the realm of biodiversity. Many of these were counting projects – how many bumblebees, birds, koalas and insects are there in the world? – and should we be duly panicked that there are fewer than before?i And I came out and said what I’d been thinking for many years – counting, databasing, analyzing are not the answers to any questions I can think of in this domain. Step one (as if I were counting) is to recognize that the species concept is silly to begin with – we are all ineluctably symbioses of many ‘beings’ and species shade one into the other: it is more interesting to consider nature as One. Step two (I wish I’d stop counting) is to recognize that producing a catalog of the library of nature while it was burning down was never a solutionii; the issues lie in our behavior (our Way), not in enumeration. It’s just that I said all this to the wrong audience, to people who gained solace and purpose through adding to the great database of Life.
From about 70BCE, a persistent question in the West for computer scientists, talliers and legislators is what difference a distinction makes. We now have classification systems beyond our ken: machine learning algorithms can process us into databits which act sufficiently like those of our unapprehended peers that we can be readily manipulated. Data (that which is given) are both gift and poison. Through databasing the world we do understand ourselves and the world better; the downside is that in exactly the same motion we reify both – freezing them in the eternal sunshine of an error-free code which makes division ever more fine-grained, ever more necessary. We become that which our data tells us we are.
Author: Geoffrey C. Bowker
Anne Cheng, Histoire de la Pensée Chinoise. Paris: Seuil, 1997.
Richard Neer and Leslie Kurke, Pindar, Song, and Space: Towards a Lyric Archaeology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.[i] See for example https://www.zooniverse.org/, which claims nearly 600 million classifications among all it’s counting projects. See for example https://www.bumblebeewatch.org/ or https://fundis.org/resources/blog/115-a-four-tiered-model-for-crowdsourcing-fungal-biodiversity-citizen-science. [ii] For the burning library metaphor in taxanomics, see http://ailman.nhm.ku.edu/pipermail/taxacom/2002-August/thread.html#41466.