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Seeing Like a Data Structure

๐ŸŒˆ Abstract

The article discusses how the increasing abstraction and datafication of the world through technology is transforming society, and the need to embrace the complexity and messiness of reality rather than trying to impose rigid systems and control.

๐Ÿ™‹ Q&A

[01] Abstraction

1. What is the issue with the increasing abstraction and datafication of the world through technology?

  • The article argues that as the world becomes increasingly abstracted and represented through data structures, it is leading to a loss of connection with the messy, contingent, and ambiguous reality that has defined humanity.
  • This abstraction, while enabling advancements in science, technology, and management, also leads to failures as important details and context are left out.
  • The article suggests that the desire to abstract never went away, and technology has supercharged this, with computing manifesting abstraction through software and data structures.

2. How are data structures and abstractions being used to transform the world?

  • Engineers are transforming data about the world into data structures at massive scale, and then employing "indirection" to break apart sociotechnical processes and replace them with these abstractions.
  • Examples given include ghost kitchens, social media platforms classifying users into interest categories, and Spotify's recommendations based on data structures.

3. What are the issues with this abstracted, data-driven view of the world?

  • It can lead to a disconnect between the abstracted reality presented and the actual messy, contextual reality.
  • It enables the optimization of things for the data structures rather than for the actual human experience (e.g. making food more "Instagrammable" rather than tastier).
  • It creates opportunities for people to "hack" the systems by exploiting the rules and algorithms.

[02] Machines

1. How has the shift to a more systematic, institutional society changed how we interact with the world?

  • The article argues that the industrial revolution shifted society away from one centered around interpersonal dynamics and communal interactions to one that was more systematic and institutional.
  • This involved the use of abstract reason over social preferences, with knowledge moving "out in the world" rather than just in people's heads.

2. What are the issues with this more abstracted, systematic view of the world?

  • It has led to workers and the natural world being treated as cogs in a machine, with a focus on measurement, optimization, and mechanistic views.
  • This "high modernist" view neglects the messiness of reality and the tacit, contextual knowledge needed to deal with it.

3. How has computation further enabled this abstraction and division?

  • Computation has enabled not just the division of time, but the division of information, with many jobs being reduced to a set of information-processing tasks.
  • This has led to a world where computing not only abstracts our world, but also defines our inner worlds through things like social media and AI-generated content.

[03] Fissures

1. What are the key issues with the rigid, data-driven systems that have emerged?

  • The article argues that the complexity of society today has led to a failure of these rigid systems to cope, with no one in charge or able to fully understand all the technological systems running global society.
  • This has led to a breakdown of trust, with people believing in nothing as the systems feel impersonal and oppressive.

2. What are the different responses to this breakdown of rigid systems?

  • Some call for dramatic action to replace big systems like capitalism, while others want to return to a mythical simpler past.
  • Others hope that more data and tweaks can repair the current systems, but the article argues this mode of thought is flawed.

3. Why is the current transitional era so challenging?

  • The overwhelming complexity is leading more people to believe in nothing, which the article warns "leads to madness" in the form of polarization, conspiracies, and misinformation.

[04] Fluidity

1. What is the key challenge in moving past the current era of breakdown?

  • The article argues it is not about eschewing technology, but rather about finding a balance - using technology to make sense of complexity while accepting its inherent imperfections and leaving room for the messiness of human interactions.

2. What are the key elements needed for this new "fluid" approach?

  • Enabling people to communicate and interact in ways that make them feel comfortable, not just optimized for engagement.
  • Bridging the gap between how large institutions/systems work and how people expect to interact with them.
  • Enabling the dynamic creation and destruction of new organizations and social groups, rather than lock-in and enclosure.

3. How can technology play a role in enabling this fluid, contextual approach?

  • Technology can help people make "tentative, contextual, partial sense" of the complex world, rather than trying to impose rigid, universal truths.
  • Examples include tools that simplify interactions with large institutions, and enable federated networks of organizations with local rules.
Shared by Daniel Chen ยท
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