The deception that lurks in our data-driven world

Alexis C. Madrigal at Fusion: “…There’s this amazing book called Seeing Like a State, which shows how governments and other big institutions try to reduce the vast complexity of the world into a series of statistics that their leaders use to try to comprehend what’s happening.

The author, James C. Scott, opens the book with an extended anecdote about the Normalbaum. In the second half of the 18th century, Prussian rulers wanted to know how many “natural resources” they had in the tangled woods of the country. So, they started counting. And they came up with these huge tables that would let them calculate how many board-feet of wood they could pull from a given plot of forest. All the rest of the forest, everything it did for the people and the animals and general ecology of the place was discarded from the analysis.

The world proved too unruly. Their data wasn’t perfect.

But the world proved too unruly. Their data wasn’t perfect. So they started creating new forests, the Normalbaum, planting all the trees at the same time, and monoculturing them so that there were no trees in the forest that couldn’t be monetized for wood. “The fact is that forest science and geometry, backed by state power, had the capacity to transform the real, diverse, and chaotic old-growth forest into a new, more uniform forest that closely resembled the administrative grid of its techniques,” Scott wrote.

normal forrest plan

The spreadsheet became the world! They even planted the trees in rows, like a grid.

German foresters got very scientific with their fertilizer applications and management practices. And the scheme really worked—at least for a hundred years. Pretty much everyone across the world adopted their methods.

Then the forests started dying.

“In the German case, the negative biological and ultimately commercial consequences of the stripped-down forest became painfully obvious only after the second rotation of conifers had been planted,” Scott wrote.

The complex ecosystem that underpinned the growth of these trees through generations—all the microbial and inter-species relationships—were torn apart by the rigor of the Normalbaum. The nutrient cycles were broken. Resilience was lost. The hidden underpinnings of the world were revealed only when they were gone. The Germans, like they do, came up with a new word for what happened: Waldsterben, or forest death.

The hidden underpinnings of the world were revealed only when they were gone.

Sometimes, when I look out at our world—at the highest level—in which thin data have come to stand in for huge complex systems of human and biological relationships, I wonder if we’re currently deep in the Normalbaum phase of things, awaiting the moment when Waldsterbensets in.

Take the ad-supported digital media ecosystem. The idea is brilliant: capture data on people all over the web and then use what you know to show them relevant ads, ads they want to see. Not only that, but because it’s all tracked, unlike broadcast or print media, an advertiser can measure what they’re getting more precisely. And certainly the digital advertising market has grown, taking share from most other forms of media. The spreadsheet makes a ton of sense—which is one reason for the growth predictions that underpin the massive valuations of new media companies.

But scratch the surface, like Businessweek recently did, and the problems are obvious. A large percentage of the traffic to many stories and videos consists of software pretending to be human.

“The art is making the fake traffic look real, often by sprucing up websites with just enough content to make them appear authentic,” Businessweek says. “Programmatic ad-buying systems don’t necessarily differentiate between real users and bots, or between websites with fresh, original work, and Potemkin sites camouflaged with stock photos and cut-and-paste articles.”

Of course, that’s not what high-end media players are doing. But the cheap programmatic ads, fueled by fake traffic, drive down the pricesacross the digital media industry, making it harder to support good journalism. Meanwhile, users of many sites are rebelling against the business model by installing ad blockers.

The advertisers and ad-tech firms just wanted to capture user data to show them relevant ads. They just wanted to measure their ads more effectively. But placed into the real-world, the system that grew up around these desires has reshaped the media landscape in unpredictable ways.

We’ve deceived ourselves into thinking data is a camera, but it’s really an engine. Capturing data about something changes the way that something works. Even the mere collection of stats is not a neutral act, but a way of reshaping the thing itself….(More)”