There is a school of thought rising in popularity which wants coding to become a mandatory subject in schools. I have some thoughts on this, but that is neither here nor there for this review. Rather, it’s just interesting that for all the talk of teaching kids to code because it will lead to “better jobs”, there isn’t much emphasis on teaching about the way Big Data is redefining our lives. From data mining to algorithms to the much-vaunted buzzword of 2015, the “blockchain” (blech), the explosion of computational capacity in the last two decades is literally changing the world, and we don’t talk enough about it. Oh, you see the headlines, the surface tech news. But unless a Snowden shows up and drops a payload of documents, it doesn’t make much of a ripple. And even these ripples subside.
Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies is a very academic examination of the consequences of our society’s increasing dependence upon and fascination with data collection and analysis. Roberto Simanowski points out the tension inherent in this fascination: more data can help us be more efficient, make societies better—but it comes at the cost of privacy and security, and it is not always a neutral force.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher, Columbia University Press. The book appears to have been previously published in German two years ago but came out last week in this English edition. This would explain why I had a hard time getting through it, I think: the writing definitely sounds like it has been translated into English. Academic texts can be dry enough in one’s native tongue; translated texts can be even harder to grok sometimes.
And to be fair, I think I was anticipating something less academic and more pop culture-y, and that’s on me for not reading the description more carefully to pick out choice words like “philosophical”. So I went into Data Love expecting something on the order of The Numerati and instead got something closer to Reason, Faith, and Revolution (and we all know how that turned out).
Whatever the reasons, however, I’m still not fond of Data Love as an academic text. The organization is a mess. Simanowski jumps from topic to topic seemingly at random; I cannot for the life of me discern any governing thread or theme running through the book or any semblance of purpose to the chapters. This goes beyond being lost in translation (which only explains issues on a sentence/paragraph level) into being lost, period (at a chapter level). I’d finish a chapter, sit back, and go, “Wait, what did I learn from this?” Heaven forfend I ever had to read this as part of a philosophy course! Simanowski knows his stuff, cites people I’ve heard of (like Evgeny Morozov, that delightful Internet curmudgeon). Having gone to set it down on the page, however, he does not successfully organize his thoughts into coherent, easily summarized points.
So I gave up. I’m trying to do that more often these days.
Look, this is not a fatally flawed book. The subject matter is of interest to me, obviously, and I think if one is in the appropriate mood and one’s mind properly girded for an intense, introspective look down the mined rabbit hole of translated philosophy texts, then Data Love could be good. Don’t take my DNF as damning critique, but do take it as a warning that you can’t just jump into this one on a whim and expect to love it.