Spool Five

Note on Data


A note on some thoughts around ‘data’. Inspired, in the first instance, by this discussion on hacker news.

TODO Summarise some key points from the Hickey/Kay discussion

  • The starting point of the discussion is the questioning of the assumption that ‘data is a good idea’ from Kay
  • Hickey challenges the assumption that data has any innate value at all. Any ‘value’ is added through interpretation.
  • So, the core issue here is around the value (moral or otherwise) of ‘data’, and whether it has any at all.


In relation to this line by Hickey:

The defining aspect of data is that it reflects a recording of some facts/observations of the universe at some point in time (this is what ‘data’ means, and meant long before programmers existed and started applying it to any random updatable bits they put on disk). A second critical aspect of data is that it doesn’t and can’t do anything, i.e. have effects.

This is the core question - can data do anything? Or, is there a clear separation between facts and values? Between is and ought?

From a process philosophy perspective, facts (actualities) are already ‘interpretations’, or ‘comprehensions’ of a multiplicity of virtual possibilities. Any actuality (datum) is a selection (concrescence) of multiple processes.

The deeper question here is around the necessity of these actualities, i.e., from a mathematical perspective, could the facts have been otherwise? (A familiar example here might be in terms of quantum probabilities).

In this case, we still couldn’t think of data in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sense (it would still be ‘beyond good and evil’), but that is not to say it is entirely neutral from a metaphysical perspective, and in this sense we also can’t say that it is without ’effects’. The fact that some things exist in certain ways, while others do not, has an effect on future possibilities (to an extent). Each actuality/concrescence forms part of the conditions for future actualities. In Whitehead’s sense, facts are not ‘static’ (outside of time) but flow into each other. In Gadamer’s terms there is a ‘history of effects’ (and Heidegger too would emphasise how conscious is always affected by what has been selected/concealed, i.e., by the potentiality latent in the absence behind every presence).

In terms of thinking as data as a ‘record’, this perhaps aligns with Deleuze’s concept of thinking as a form of recording. Data, similar to ’thinking’ would stand midway between the virtual and the actual, as a marking of what was made actual, but with this marking itself feeding into future possibilities (and also past possibilities in Deleuze’s sense of the past). In this sense data is something like the ‘interface’ of the process of creation and destruction.

In hermeneutic terms, data is reflective of the latent structures in things. Not in a restrictive sense. For example, Gadamer’s discussion of ‘play’ as the foundation of ontology. There are the rules of games, that establish structures of play and interpretation, but this kind of movement extends beyond ‘rules’ in the social sense. There is also the play of light, playfulness as a mode of being, and so on. Play is a very ‘free’ and broad concept, however it contains within it a notion of context. ‘Data’ could be thought of also as context, the latent/factual structure which enables the emergence of creativity and interpretation.

Fri Feb 23, 2024 - 559 Words

Tags: blog clojure philosophy box3