False Positivism

Essay by Peter Polack: “During the pandemic, the everyday significance of modeling — data-driven representations of reality designed to inform planning — became inescapable. We viewed our plans, fears, and desires through the lens of statistical aggregates: Infection-rate graphs became representations not only of the virus’s spread but also of shattered plans, anxieties about lockdowns, concern for the fate of our communities. 

But as epidemiological models became more influential, their implications were revealed as anything but absolute. One model, the Recidiviz Covid-19 Model for Incarceration, predicted high infection rates in prisons and consequently overburdened hospitals. While these predictions were used as the basis to release some prisoners early, the model has also been cited by those seeking to incorporate more data-driven surveillance technologies into prison management — a trend new AI startups like Blue Prism and Staqu are eager to get in on. Thus the same model supports both the call to downsize prisons and the demand to expand their operations, even as both can claim a focus on flattening the curve. …

The ethics and effects of interventions depend not only on facts in themselves, but also on how facts are construed — and on what patterns of organization, existing or speculative, they are mobilized to justify. Yet the idea persists that data collection and fact finding should override concerns about surveillance, and not only in the most technocratic circles and policy think tanks. It also has defenders in the world of design theory and political philosophy. Benjamin Bratton, known for his theory of global geopolitics as an arrangement of computational technologies he calls “theStack,” sees in data-driven modeling the only political rationality capable of responding to difficult social and environmental problems like pandemics and climate change. In his latest book, The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World, he argues that expansive models — enabled by what he theorizes as “planetary-scale computation” — can transcend individualistic perspectives and politics and thereby inaugurate a more inclusive and objective regime of governance. Against a politically fragmented world of polarized opinions and subjective beliefs, these models, Bratton claims, would unite politics and logistics under a common representation of the world. In his view, this makes longstanding social concerns about personal privacy and freedom comparatively irrelevant and those who continue to raise them irrational…(More)”.