From The New Republic:
The mathematization of subjectivity will founder upon the resplendent fact that we are ambiguous beings. We frequently have mixed feelings, and are divided against ourselves. We use different words to communicate similar thoughts, but those words are not synonyms. Though we dream of exactitude and transparency, our meanings are often approximate and obscure. What algorithm will capture “the feel of not to feel it / when there is none to heal it,” or “half in love with easeful Death”? How will the sentiment analysis of those words advance the comprehension of bleak emotions? (In my safari into sentiment analysis I found some recognition of the problem of ambiguity, but it was treated as merely a technical obstacle.) We are also self-interpreting beings—that is, we deceive ourselves and each other. We even lie. It is true that we make choices, and translate our feelings into actions; but a choice is often a coarse and inadequate translation of a feeling, and a full picture of our inner states cannot always be inferred from it. I have never voted wholeheartedly in a general election.
For the purpose of the outcome of an election, of course, it does not matter that I vote complicatedly. All that matters is that I vote. The same is true of what I buy. A business does not want my heart; it wants my money. Its interest in my heart is owed to its interest in my money. (For business, dissatisfaction is grief.) It will come as no surprise that the most common application of the datafication of subjectivity is to commerce, in which I include politics. Again and again in the scholarly papers on sentiment analysis the examples given are restaurant reviews and movie reviews. This is fine: the study of the consumer is one of capitalism’s oldest techniques. But it is not fine that the consumer is mistaken for the entirety of the person. Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier exult that “datafication is a mental outlook that may penetrate all areas of life.” This is the revolution: the Rotten Tomatoes view of life. “Datafication represents an essential enrichment in human comprehension.” It is this inflated claim that gives offense. It would be more proper to say that datafication represents an essential enrichment in human marketing. But marketing is hardly the supreme or most consequential human activity. Subjectivity is not most fully achieved in shopping. Or is it, in our wired consumerist satyricon?
“With the help of big data,” Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier continue, “we will no longer regard our world as a string of happenings that we explain as natural and social phenomena, but as a universe comprised essentially of information.” An improvement! Can anyone seriously accept that information is the essence of the world? Of our world, perhaps; but we are making this world, and acquiescing in its making. The religion of information is another superstition, another distorting totalism, another counterfeit deliverance. In some ways the technology is transforming us into brilliant fools. In the riot of words and numbers in which we live so smartly and so articulately, in the comprehensively quantified existence in which we presume to believe that eventually we will know everything, in the expanding universe of prediction in which hope and longing will come to seem obsolete and merely ignorant, we are renouncing some of the primary human experiences. We are certainly renouncing the inexpressible. The other day I was listening to Mahler in my library. When I caught sight of the computer on the table, it looked small.