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The Hallelujah of Dataism

Photo by Mariah Solomon on Unsplash

Anyone who wants to believe in it, finds their priests: dataism.

Last summer, I read the book entitled ‘Friction’ by philosopher Miriam Rasch. She defines dataism as the sacred belief in data as an explanatory model for reality and as a way of influencing reality for the better. That is what I sometimes come across in practice, and there are a few signal words that point out to me that I could be dealing with data disciples. The two most important ones are ‘data-driven’ and ‘innovation’. These are two words that are also used in the hallelujah of dataism.

Data-driven working assumes that if we use data as a basis, and therefore take the means as a starting point, we end up in a better place, even though we do not yet know where that is. The focus on the means instead of on the values or the big question ‘to what purpose’ is a technical exercise in which ethics is irrelevant.

Innovation is also a feel-good word that raises a lot of hands in the air, because who does not want to innovate? We people like to get moving, we want things to get better. But innovation just for the sake of innovation is just as disastrous as working on the basis of data without a clear objective.

Dataism is not a higher religious ideal. It is a neo-liberal belief, wrapped up in something beautiful that people love to connect with in times of empty churches and the need to give meaning to life. In the churches of Silicon Valley, dataists even promise us eternal life.

Philosopher Lisa Doeland calls on us to start doom-mongering. She announces that the times of ‘more and more’, ‘progress’ and ‘yes’ are over. Even though her plea is aimed at climate change (she particularly deals with our relationship with waste), I would also like to make a plea for doom-mongering about data. We should think about the possible excesses, the dangers. Nothing is without risk. Examples are the security leaks at the Municipal Health Service (GGD), the childcare benefit affair, SyRi (System Risk Indication).

As a philosophy student, I was told to watch out for all -isms. I learned to see the value of every theory, and to take from it what is relevant. That is also useful where dataism is concerned.

What we need is a sense of reality, and sometimes that requires throwing our hands in the air and doom-mongering at the same time. To me, that is all part of ethics.

This column is a translated version of the original text in Dutch that was published in iBestuur Magazine (#38, april 2021).