Of Note: Cabinet-Shaped
The Data Delusion by Jill Lepore
The New Yorker, March 27, 2023
According to Jill Lepore of The New Yorker, the ubiquity of data – the word, what it contains, and what it signifies – is not just a marvel but also a phenomenon long in the making. What exactly data encompasses, how it can and should be used to inform human decision-making, and where it fits into the larger continuum of human knowledge can be confounding; however, in “The Data Delusion,” Lepore provides both a helpful analogy and an overview of recent history to help us understand the information age of “big data” in which we currently live. “Imagine,” she says, “that all the world’s knowledge is stored, and organized, in a single vertical Steelcase filing cabinet” with four drawers labeled mysteries, facts, numbers, and data. Immediately, said cabinet snaps into focus in our minds, and we can’t help but notice how the simple act of putting “big data” into a cabinet-shaped context is calming. Through definition, Lepore further clarifies the role of data as “knowledge that humans can’t know directly” and for which we need a computer to gather, and which has one main purpose: to help us to make predictions by recognizing patterns. The data drawer used to be empty, but, she says, in the last hundred years, it has filled up to the point of overflowing. Lepore’s look at the historical sweep of the last century, like her analogy of the four-drawer cabinet, both dispels the mystery of data’s current ubiquity and establishes its logic. Ultimately, she draws our attention to the top drawer where the real and not yet answered mysteries, like how to create equitable, engaging learning experiences for every child around the world, wait to be solved.