‘You don’t have to obey the technology’

“There you have another one, in its own world”, Hans grumbles. A boy of about twenty passes us without looking up from his smartphone. He has wireless plugs in his ears. Hans is used to saying hello to other hikers on the narrow path along the IJssel. It makes him uncomfortable that he is being noticed less and less often.

I regularly take walks with Hans. We met through a buddy project in Deventer. Hans speaks few people at that time. If the museums have to close their doors because of corona, his world will become smaller. He refuses to meet people through a screen, because that is ‘not a real conversation’.

As soon as we have to scan a QR code at the local brewery to gain access, Hans rolls his eyes. His annoyance goes beyond misunderstanding or ignorance. It is a deep-seated unwillingness. As Hans puts it: “I don’t know what the cloud is, I don’t even want to know, but I have to, otherwise I can’t to be.”


During the conversations with Hans I think about the book friction by Miriam Rasch, which won the Socrates Cup for the best philosophy book of 2020. In it, Rasch unfolds a critique of dataism: the belief that everything that exists can be translated into digital data. And that we should also base our decisions on that, because the data knows better than we do.

Miriam Rasch: “Information is being collected about us that we have no idea what it means, what it means, what consequences it could have.”

Merlin Doomernik

According to Rasch, people and the world are too complex to capture in data. In their religious attempt to analyze people and make the world predictable, the dataists lose sight of everything. Meanwhile, with their data analyses, they produce a measurable, tangible reality that we start to believe in and behave according to.

Rasch is a literary scholar, philosopher and essayist. She works at the Willem de Kooning Academy as coordinator of the Research Station, where she is involved in research along all lines in the academy. We speak via Zoom. There I present to her what Hans told me.

Hans thinks he will cease to exist if he refuses to understand what the cloud is.

“Yes, it has become impossible to be part of society without digital technology. The smartphone used to be the exception, now it’s the standard. If you want to deviate from that, you have to put in a lot of effort. People think you’re strange. So I can well imagine that you put yourself out of society when you say ‘I don’t want this’.”

“And even if you try not to have anything to do with it, you’re still in the cloud through the devices of others who collect information about you. You can’t escape it. Everyone has a doppelganger in the cloud, including Hans. That is disturbing.”

What makes it disturbing?

“Because you have no idea what that information actually is. Information is collected about us of which we have no idea what it means, what it means, what consequences it could have. We are dealing with unknown unkowns: that which we do not yet know that we do not know.”

“There are many uncertain factors that cannot be controlled. Not even by the people who work with the technology. They can no longer explain why the algorithm takes a decision or makes a risk assessment. You and I are in a group of the population that may not be directly affected by this. But if you go to mental health care, like Hans, there is a greater chance that you will become a victim of that.”

These concerns are often dismissed as technical pessimism: people always react with fear to the unknown.

“I started my research into digital technology out of love. I wouldn’t want to go back to a time before the internet. We’re seeing online polarization growing, but that’s because groups that were previously invisible or inaudible join in. People of non-Western descent, but also women. That’s half of the world’s population. I wouldn’t want to give up such a huge win.”

“I am not afraid of technology, but of power dynamics. The enormous thirst for money and capital. Unfortunately, it is the people who have the technology in their hands who develop it further and who have the most influence on it. We have a lot to lose if we leave the development of technology to those who use it for their own benefit. The technology deserves better. It can also be better.”

In the theme Your data and you, of which this article is part, we also follow Cees. He calls the internet a panacea. With the smartphone, he has the world in his hand.

“We will all recognize that. A world has also opened up. You can find so much information, ideas, music, art and types of people online. You can publish your own book. Plus, you never have to get lost again. Many people will feel safer on the street because they always know where they are, where to go, where the nearest bus stop is. Those are things you should not underestimate.”

“So sure, you have the world in your hand, I can’t deny it. But of course it is a reflection of the world. Or one of the many worlds. It is unfortunate if it is confused with ‘the’ world. Digitization has opened up and delivered so much that it is sometimes forgotten that it is even a form of the world.”

The digital domain is another world?

“Not another world. Everything is happening online that is also just reality. The idea that the digital world is something else, a virtual world that is separate from reality, is called ‘digital dualism’. You can’t maintain that, you can’t draw that line. Anyone who has ever been dumped via text or Facebook message will know. That is a painful reality, it really doesn’t just happen on your smartphone.”

“But if you isolate the digital representation and say ‘this is the truth’, then you are also doing digital dualism. Then you ignore things. It is important to constantly emphasize that there are also other ways of describing and understanding the world than in digital data.”

Why do people find dataism so attractive?

“You can count and measure numbers and statistics. That gives a sense of control. But during the corona crisis we already saw that numbers are not so objective, neutral, clear and transparent. You have to interpret numbers, you have to translate them into policy decisions. That happens in different ways, otherwise it would be the same all over the world.”

“There is another thing that makes dataism popular. Numbers indicate a clear direction. The numbers must decrease or increase. If that happens, you’re doing well. While the reality is much more complex and goes in different directions.”

So what exactly is that complexity?

Rasch points out the window of her study. “If I had to describe what is happening in my garden right now – with the wind, the animals… The complexity is enormous. It cannot be captured in data. We have to make do with a reduced reflection of reality. You lose things that could be important.”

“I believe in the complexity of humans. Every person can recognize that of himself by doing introspection. You discover things that remain elusive even to you. They cannot be captured by data systems and algorithms. It’s a matter of faith. Dataism believes it can. I believe that is not possible.”

In the book ‘Friction’ Miriam Rasch unfolds a critique of dataism.

Publisher The Busy Bee

In fact, you shudder at the idea that man can be understood as a computer.

“I certainly shudder at that. If we believe that, we will lose a lot. The dataists think that their utopian dream of the future applies to everyone. It is often said: if we have all your data, we can serve you and help you make better choices. But in the end it’s about helping me make the choice that’s in line with their technology. It’s about power and money.”

That reminds me of Hans. He calls psychiatry in the Netherlands ‘cold’.

“A quantitative look is also meant to be cold. It is ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’, untainted by ‘warm’ human feelings and prejudices. There are good sides to that. You are approached with a scientific view. The heart of the scientific view is to abstract, to distance yourself, not to let your emotions play a part. That is very rewarding, but if you take it too far, it keeps you away from new knowledge.”

“We have to recognize that the pure, clean, objective look is impossible. Everything we see is mediated through our senses, through the devices we use. You cannot say: this is the most objective and therefore most truthful way of describing people and things and making decisions about them. Because if it only remained a description… but it is also about decisions with concrete, far-reaching consequences.”

What can you do if you want to avoid this?

“That’s not easy. Life without a smartphone is almost impossible anymore. But we really don’t have to get all of those ‘smart’ devices at home. Why should you have a TV that can secretly send your conversations to a data center? Why would you want a voice assistant in your home if there is no medical need?”

“What I further try to put into practice has more to do with the mutual relationships that arise through technology. The idea that you should always be reachable, for example. I resist that. I don’t look at my phone for hours. Many people think that this is no longer possible, but it is possible.”

“We don’t always have to obey technology. That does mean that we have to make agreements with each other about how we use that technology. That can be difficult, at work for example, because you think you have to participate. But you can always start the conversation. You can say, ‘I’m not on WhatsApp, how are we going to fix that?’”

In your book you write that we need the idiot.

“That’s the figure who says: I don’t just go along with that. The idiot refuses to bow to what Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg have come up with for us. Just plug it in. That’s the idiot’s attitude. And then hopefully constructively and constructively: if we don’t want to do it on these conditions, then we will have to create conditions ourselves. How are we going to do that together?”

Source: Kennislink by www.nemokennislink.nl.

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