Humanity, the quality of being a human, is shaped by us as we changed over the centuries and went through the biological evolution, particularly the changes in our brains and thought process (Spier, 2015). What role did data play in it, if any at all? Modern literatures’ enticement with data and a new paradigm shift in science through big data as well as our life due to the excessive use (and abuse) of data - is this an entirely new phenomenon or have we always been driven by them but never cared? This article would take a journey in the human memory lane to evaluate the necessity of data and conclude whether the new hype of big data is worthwhile or not.
The anatomical evolution from primates (genus homo) to modern Homo sapiens required a long process. Feel free to understand the science behind it from Boyd and Silk (2014) and Boero (2015). These theories e.g., theory of natural selection, study of life, and theory of evolution are based on years of collected data. Even an idea or philosophy is influenced by day to day information and later confirmed by empirical evidence. This goes back to the enlightening era of Greek and Roman philosophy, which heavily molded the theories and experiments of the Islamic golden age that emerged between the 8th century to the 14th century (Renima et al., 2016). Were they driven by data or purely by synthesizing logics or worse, ‘daydreams’?
We can explore this by understanding the early developments of astronomy. Nowadays, it is easy to link astronomy with data. The high range telescopes have brought in petabytes of data and astronomers successfully developed the most detailed map of the milky-way (have fun). However, what happened in the ancient times, when they did not have the arsenal of cloud computing or the sophisticated machines to look through the giant telescopes? Long before Copernicus (1473-1543) or Galileo (1564-1642), more than a thousand years before the first telescopes, Babylonians used to document the movement of the heavenly bodies, list their visible duration in the sky, and link them with yearly seasonal changes. They collected their data in clay tablets (MUL.APIN), most of which decayed over time, and they associated these with their theories/philosophies and gave birth to empirical approach of science (Jones, 1991). Their data were used to justify or fashion various models (e.g., Geocentric System of Claudius Ptolemy). Even back then, data manipulation was an issue as Robert Russell Newton graciously accused Claudius Ptolemy’s work as fraudulent because Ptolemy was found to fabricate data yielding his desired results; “This is the story of a scientific crime. … this practice is called fraud, and it is a crime against science and scholarship. … the most successful fraud in the history of science” (Newton, 1977).
Probably it is easy to tie the applications of data and their analyses with science. What about the social aspects of humanity? For example, how can data be an asset in ethics or morality? Our conscience is a collection of our ancestor’s do’s and don’ts. They were not given by one parson or magically came down from the heaven, as much as you would love to believe; they developed through many trials and errors (you might like to read: Bucke (2009)). They gathered information from nature, our past activities and our mistakes. We learned not to hurt others because it is not beneficial for us in the long term; however, we balanced it by defending our groups (countries, ethnic classes, religions bodies). The thin line between ‘selfishness’ and ‘what I deserve’ became clearer as civilization matured. They were results of our past experiences, our experiments, and successes or failures. The conclusions were drawn from a vast collection of data over many generations, and now applied in everyday lives, which hardly needs a second thought.
I think the application of data created reasoning skills, not the other way around. When we have enough information, we can draw the bigger picture and thus, provide a more conclusive and rational decision. One of the reasons why radicals generally refer to only one kind of philosophy or worse, only one book. This limited information clouds their senses and obstructs other perspectives regarding the consequence of her/his actions ultimately leading to chaos. It is easy to radicalize the less educated. People with lack of data would always believe the first thing they hear. The anti-vaccination campaigns or anti-climate movements are easy to sell to those who lack necessary knowledge to analyze a broader spectrum. In these regards, the value of mathematics cannot be stressed enough (McPhan et al., 2008).
Staring from Sheikh Hasina’s dream of creating a digital Bangladesh to Elon Musk’s crusade to ship humans in Mars, all we need is enough data and people intelligent enough to analyze them. Without a 360◦ frame of reference, none of the human dreams can come true, at least not in 21st Century. With the amount of data produced in modern era, we cannot simply scan the mean and standard error, and expect to determine a policy. With Google developing the next generation AI with excelled data mining capability and the replacement of humans are far from being a fantasy, I predict the core of humanity would be data driven and definition would alter to include the processing capacity of the vast data: with big data comes bigger responsibilities.
Boero, F., 2015. From darwin’s origin of species toward a theory of natural history. F1000prime reports 7.
Boyd, R., Silk, J. B., 2014. How humans evolved. WW Norton & Company.
Bucke, R. M., 2009. Cosmic consciousness: A study in the evolution of the human mind. Courier Corporation.
Jones, A., 1991. The adaptation of babylonian methods in greek numerical astronomy. Isis 82 (3), 440–453.
McPhan, G., Morony, W., Pegg, J., Cooksey, R., Lynch, T., 2008. Maths? Why Not? Canberra.
Newton, R. R., 1977. The crime of claudius ptolemy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c1977.
Renima, A., Tiliouine, H., Estes, R. J., 2016. The islamic golden age: A story of the triumph of the islamic civilization. In: The State of Social Progress of Islamic Societies. Springer, pp. 25–52.
Spier, F., 2015. Big history and the future of humanity. John Wiley & Sons.
Published in the 27th edition of Dwairath, the official yearly magazine of Notre Dame Debating Club