Feb 20, 2023·edited Feb 24, 2023

People on the ground at the organizations who actually publish and curate information have a shop-floor sense of this risk. Consider: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/data-dead-why-data-driven-enterprise-doa-wouter-van-aerle

But somehow, while I was reading these posts, I kept thinking of the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn, amoral shysters who eventually get tarred and feathered as they can’t outrun the information that catches up with their scams. Likewise Bernie Madoff. In Twain’s remembered world, they were physically accessible, dishing their misinformation and their entertaining rhetoric from town to town. So maybe that agragrian pace helped keep them honest? I’m not so sure…

We might think that the digital world has, or soon will, outrun that plodding, analog, storytelling pace, and that digital information in conspiracies will connect the dots in such a way as to ruin everything with their horror narratives that take root without a care for who, or where, or why.

We might think that about the January 6 events, for example. But the race is not to the swift. And somehow I turn to Heraclitus. Everything flows.

Too vague? Back to Twain, who, as Samuel Clemens, learned from a stern and kindly master how to read the river.

That chapter from life on the Mississippi is well worth reading. We are still learning how to read new rivers. We want to be good people as we do so, and the virtues are never to be neglected as we face each other every day in our communities. But the flow of data won’t stop. We are just getting better at reading it. We might be sadder for the paradise lost, but we can and will concoct narratives that render the loss beautifully, as Twain does here: (“ ‘Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a wind reef. The wind does that.’

‘So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?’

‘I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just naturally know one from the other, but you never will be able to explain why or how you know them apart.’

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.”)


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This is a wonderful post, Michael, thank you. The question that seems to make a difference in whether we are able to focus on the cultivation of virtues such as you point us toward--courage, patience, practical wisdom, and friendship--is whether we are able to glimpse and participate in a narrative which frames the Database. Our inadequacy to negotiate narrative constructions if we see the Database as the ultimate frame seems to me to have its roots in reaching for the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil prior to it being given, ill-equipped to adjudicate the world we thus brought upon ourselves. It is a world of death. But when that greater story is the frame for the Database, then the means of grace and hope of glory which are part of the great climax of that story points us toward the faithful Shepherd who ever lives to make intercession for us. Worship of the Lord of the database frees us from its enslavement. Jeremiah 6:16ff makes for fruitful meditation. The invitation is still before us, to walk in the ancient paths of wisdom, as you outline, but if we refuse, the judgment that will come is none other than the fruit of our devices. God bless your good work!

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Elegantly put. The master narrative cures (and curates) the chaos. “The Earth was without form, and void.” Genesis 1:2, but then echoed in Jeremiah 4:23.

Yielding to a master narrative whose frame we admit we do NOT know but whose elements we repeat has saved us from chaos in the past. Aristotle’s habit of virtues, for classical people, or the saying, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews” dance to that same tune. Likewise, a practice of stoicism cobbled together from the various disparate philosophers gathered under that heading. The coherence emerges from that yielding to a master narrative.

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Beautiful, Paul. Thank you.

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Nicely put. What master narrative do you cleave to most strongly?

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The stoic one: Conscious, moral beings can control how we respond to what happens. And forming good habits helps us get ready for that engagement.

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Wise and lucid as ever. I would add that maybe what makes endless futile searching ‘for more facts’ so compelling is that we can cast ourselves as the heroic lone detective who will find out the whole truth and then lead humanity / the planet to salvation? And I totally agree that building real trusting friendships in fully embodied contexts in particular places is what might give us a chance of retaining a measure of sanity through these times…

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Many thanks for the essay and the opportunity to participate.

Peering into America from outside, in my case from Britain, might not be helpful. Of course British narratives or opinion have always been weird, and in their own ways often reliably at odds with the reality and experience of many of our lives. Though it has long been the case that fashions and opinions have flowed instantly across the Atlantic, I guess we still differ from you, even these days when as well as language we share, an internet and a similar range of modern educational experience. I doubt even now that moon landing conspiracy or recent weather (?) balloons figure the same over here. smile

There is valuable textual conversation, even if the world never did quite agree the text with experience. I am irredeemably from a different age and though not remotely up there with Ivan Illich, can identify with his declared 'bookishness’. Illich’s commentary on Hugh of St Victor saw historical turning points long in the making in the way our education and discourse changed. Illich thought we had arrived at one of those changes now. While agreeing, I have come to wonder about the lifespan of this one. The hegemonic power of technology runs on fuel, and arguably it is not only the American Enlightenment progressive faith that is facing confusion?

I think perhaps we can distinguish a little the confusion created by indiscriminate data from the counter-reality propagated by ever more pervasive techniques for market segmentation and money profit. Similarly, we could allow that the management of propaganda can actually create a successful spread of accepted narratives? The media might be somewhere in between. One argument during the Trump Presidency was that he was wonderful click-bait for otherwise increasingly unprofitable ‘liberal papers of record’ NYT and WP, and over here similarly, the Guardian. I have a data point. It was probably about 10y ago that I heard the head of our security communication organisation, GCHQ, say: “We have got the measure of the Internet now”. Hmm… It would be surprising if they hadn’t?

I look to more abiding circumstance via conviviality, and the values that embody it, even to continuity of knowledge.

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