Chesley Bonestell, “The Exploration of Mars” (1953), oil on board, 143/8 x 28 inches, gift of William Estler, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Reproduced courtesy of Bonestell LLC.

The Bondage of Data Tyranny


The Limits of Data

In “The Limits of Data” (Issues, Winter 2024), C. Thi Nguyen identifies key unspoken assumptions that pervade modern life. He skillfully illustrates the problems associated with reducing all phenomenon to data and ignoring those realities that cannot be captured by data, especially when it comes to human beings. He identifies examples of how the focus on quantification frequently strips data of context and introduces bias in the name of objectivity. Here, I offer some thoughts that complement the essay’s essential points while approaching them from slightly different perspectives.

While forcing people into groups to enable better data collection may lead to unwanted outcomes, some social categorization is necessary. Society needs legal thresholds to enable the equal treatment of citizens under the law. Sure, there are responsible 15-year-old geniuses and immature 45-year-old fools, but society has to offer some reasonable, but ultimately arbitrary, dividing line in allowing people to vote, or drive, or drink, or serve in the army. The need to codify legal standards for society remains an imperative, but, as Nguyen argues, those standards need not be strictly quantitative.

The universal drive for quantification and reducing phenomenon to data is driven by the architecture of the digital databases that process that data. Storing the data and analyzing them demands that all information inputs be in a format that must ultimately translate to 1s and 0s. This assumption itself, that all information is reducible to 1s and 0s, contains within it the conclusion that concepts, and by extension human thinking, can be reduced to binary terms. An attitude emerges that information that cannot be reduced to 1s and 0s is not worthy of attention. Holistic notions such as art, human emotion, and the soul must be either reduced to strict mathematical patterns or treated as a collection of examples from the internet or other databases.

The universal drive for quantification and reducing phenomenon to data is driven by the architecture of the digital databases that process that data.

A further motivation for the universal embrace of data and the fixation with quantification lies deep in the roots of Anglo-Saxon, and particularly American, culture. Early in the eighteenth century, the ideas of the British philosopher John Locke initiated a tradition that placed far greater value on practical facts that can be sensed (i.e., measured) rather than spiritual beliefs or cultural traditions that are the products of human reflection. By the end of the century, America’s founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, followed Locke’s tradition by emphasizing practicality and measurement. The advent of mass production and consumption—capitalism—only further sharpened the focus on the practical and obtainable. Entering the twentieth century, the great British physicist Lord Kelvin summed up his commitment to empiricism by declaring: “To measure is to know.”

Society leverages the power of current data processing technologies but is subject to their limits. An enduring fixation with data stems from modern beliefs about what type of knowledge is worthwhile. Freeing society from the bias and bondage of data tyranny will require responding to these deeply embedded technological and behavioral factors that keep society limited by contemporary data structures.

Senior Research Associate, Program for the Human Environment

The Rockefeller University

Cite this Article

“The Bondage of Data Tyranny.” Issues in Science and Technology 40, no. 3 (Spring 2024).

Vol. XL, No. 3, Spring 2024