Posts Tagged philosophy

Why a Nietzschean superman values humanity more than humans

Doctor ManhattanIt’s not often that a superior being reminds you about why it’s great to be human. As we wade through our daily lives, we tend to notice the negatives: confusion, irrationality, uncontrolled emotion, physical frailty, the list goes on.

That uniquely human trait known as “consciousness” might seem to override these foibles, but the rise of big data is making it seem like what Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan would call a “highly overrated phenomenon.” Luckily, the Doctor is in.

In Watchmen Manhattan, a super being with God-like control of matter, along with the ability to teleport, fly, and grow into a giant, hides out on Mars after being accused of giving his colleagues cancer. He teleports his former girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter, herself a superhero called the Silk Spector, to Mars to convince him to save humanity. In the end, he convinces himself.

Manhattan sees things on a big scale (he finds erosion entertaining), so he’s more aware than most people of the unlikelihood of a specific human individual coming into existence.

“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air into gold… That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle,” Manhattan says. It’s particularly true of Laurie, whose mother had sex with her (absent) father even after he tried to rape her.

The whole speech is very dramatic, and definitely worth a read, but what does this have to do with data?

Sometimes I wonder if people think they can override human uniqueness with data, that if they acquire a large enough sample size, they can accurately predict human behavior.

I made the mistake of going to a psychology lecture in college. The visiting professor, apparently a well-regarded expert in the field, said his experiments had determined the level of autonomy an individual exhibits in a given situation.

I’m not a psychologist, but that seemed a bit odd. Doesn’t extrapolating what people do under controlled circumstances run counter to the nature of, well, autonomy?

Some might point to the wealth of data from uncontrolled circumstances that is available to researchers. Data: A Love Story is about how an Internet trend analyst constructed the ideal online dating profile by data-mining sites, and found herself a fiancee by systematizing her dating preferences.

Since I’m not very good at math, I guess that means I’ll never find true love online. Or maybe the future isn’t that dismal.

It’s true that Netflix can make good movie recommendations, but can an algorithm really account for the infinite number of variables contained within each individual consciousness?

By definition, data tells us what people have already done. As long as they keep doing the same thing (which, admittedly, they probably will) that’s fine. But what happens if someone changes their behavior? Or everyone?

Humans are subject to physical needs and social stimuli, but they are not programmed to act a certain way. As Dr. Manhattan points out, each person is one of a nearly infinite amount of possible combinations. It’s important to remember that.


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Great Bookstore in Peril

If you wish you were reading this on a piece of paper (I wish I was writing this on one), then here is some unfortunate news. For the week of January 11th, the Village Voice compiled a list of “The 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers,” which included the staff of the St. Mark’s Bookshop.

According to the Voice, the “staff’s jobs are on the line if either of the seemingly inevitable occur: the continued rise of e-books and the fury of Cooper [Union] students at the possibility of having to pay tuition.”

St. Mark’s rents its space from Cooper Union, which gave it a rent reduction reprieve. The highly selective college has traditionally admitted students for free, and it seems unlikely that it would give up one of it’s biggest selling points before raising the bookshop’s rent.

I’m not a fan of e-books; one of the reasons I prefer the printed variety is because it gives places like St. Mark’s a reason to exist. It’s not just a bookstore: it caters to a very specific clientele. You will never find a more complete selection of Emma Goldman texts, or a wider variety of philosophy books. And, especially if e-books take over, you will never be able to rub shoulders with the people who read them. Isn’t it nice to know that you aren’t alone; that other people share your interests?

The avid read will not be able to find the types of books St. Mark’s specializes at Barnes & Noble, and it will be awhile before some of the more esoteric titles get made into e-books. Of course, there’s always Amazon… but who wants to browse for books on socialism without socializing?

St. Mark’s is an unusual bookstore, and for that reason alone it deserves to survive. The Internet is making consumerism much more efficient, but it is also making it boring. Consumerism is the engine that drives the American economy (it’s not like we make anything anymore), and spending all of one’s time buying the same types of items from the same vendors sounds like a form of dystopia.

If the fashion-conscious can have their quirky boutiques, and gastronauts can have bakeries with $5.00 cupcakes, readers deserve to have quirky, physical bookstores. More casual readers may turn to e-books, but those who are more committed to the written word shouldn’t let the unwashed masses drag them down. If you’re in downtown Manhattan, go to St. Mark’s and show your support.

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