A note from our editor, Elizabeth MacBride:
A teacher I know shared an example of this year’s update of her state’s mandated test questions. Last year, the test question was: Explain the shape of birds’ beaks in the context of evolution, taking the role of drought into consideration. This year, the question is: Analyze the data related to the shape of birds’ beaks in the context of evolution, taking the role of drought into consideration. The standard appears to be going backward, by teaching kids that data is the goal, rather than one input. I thought of this when news broke of the database of Afghan soldiers and police left behind in Kabul, which will now fall into Taliban hands. There was no deletion option. No one wondered what use evil minds could put the data to? Almost a decade ago, I wrote a story for the BBC: “How to Out-Argue A Data Nerd.” It was born completely out of my frustration in knowing the growth hackers of Silicon Valley and the quants of Wall Street. At the time, I could not articulate the problem with their approach, which created whole systems and companies that only took data into account. It’s not that the data is bad; it’s just that it needs to exist within a full-fledged awareness of reality. Those liberal arts majors really are essential, and underpaid. Now, the quants and growth-hackers have shaped many other spheres of life, from government to education. My story for the BBC wasn’t very good. It took me more years of being in the world to be able to articulate what I knew by intuition back then: Whatever can be translated into data, can be cheapened. That includes human life.