Updated: Dec 3, 2019
In the 21st century, we are a data point; for organizations to sell us, for politicians to swing us, and even for ourselves to find us. With big data becoming big, organizations were able to capture our actions apparently by connecting our structured submitted data with an unstructured online presence. With AI and advanced data analytics, companies can not only understand and predict our demand better but also can swing our consumption patterns. Data has crossed the external world and moved to our internal psyches. How something like data which used to foreign entity morphed into one of us? I believe Data is undergoing its third significant evolution, this time focusing on us.
To understand data, we need to go back almost 2500 years when a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was breaking away from the ideology of his mentor Plato. Plato, the seeker of higher ideals, claimed that the natural world is a mere reflection of higher forms which we cannot see but acknowledge through intuition. Aristotle, however, disagreed and believed that genuine human knowledge could be acquired through the rigorous employment of human reason and empirical observations. In between both of them, they created the world which we know now.
The first evolution - Focus on external nature
Aristotle, with his obsession with observing nature and collecting data, developed the field of natural philosophy. Natural philosophy has the objective of examining the natural world through empirical data and evaluating it with reasoning. With the approach, Aristotle defined theoretical science, and almost single-handedly developed the fields of Physics, Biology, & other natural sciences, and laid the foundation of the scientific world. With the focus on objectivity, the natural world appeared to be resolvable by reductionistic methods.
The second evolution - Focus on intuitive nature
Data underwent its next significant development at the start of the scientific revolution in early 16th century CE when Copernicus asserted that the natural world might not be telling the entire truth, and the stable Earth might be rotating around the Sun. Inspired by Renaissance, he brought back Platonic intuition in scientific reasoning and resolved the confusion of astronomical science. However, he was not redeemed until in 1609 in Padua, Galileo turned his newly constructed telescope to the skies and empirically confirmed Copernicus's hypothesis. Can we imagine the moment when we realized that what we see is not valid, and we can prove it?!
The third evolution - Focus on human nature
The invention of the world wide web, with google indexing and sorting web data for faster search purposes, set the foundation for a third data evolution in the early 21st century. The focus shifted from the external natural world to our actions, which could finally be stored collectively in the form of data. The advent of social media linked our efforts to our network, creating a wealth of data where our behaviors, as a result of our actions, could also be coded. The data gatherers become a data point. Now, e.g., based on a picture, AI can determine the behavioral patterns & sexual orientation of an individual. With this, we also became subjected to collective biases and prejudices and remained open for manipulation. The boundaries between objectivity and subjectivity have started merging.
Data has accompanied us in our human quest to understand the secrets of the natural world, of the universe we live in, and of our psyches. Our evolution as individuals and as a society has been inextricably linked to the evolution of data. The challenge we are navigating in the 21st century is how to analyze Data while ourselves becoming a Datapoint.
Deepak Bansal, a philosopher, engineer, & entrepreneur, is a founder of MQ Learning. He is passionate about integrating logic, relations, and human values for meaning driven personal and professional development.