Monday, January 16, 2012

Contemplating the Personal Data Warehouse

A few weeks ago, my friend Sivakumar suggested that we could improve human life by creating a Personal Data Warehouse, that tracked the development and abilities of people.  Imagine if you could compare the age at which your children developed certain language or other cognitive skills relative to their parents or grand-parents.  We might be able to detect and correct developmental problems early.

He then makes an interesting observation about a trait in his own family, as the mental math skills of each generation are slightly less well developed than the previous one.  He speculated that perhaps this was the result of an increasing reliance upon technology.

Is this true?

If it's true, is it a problem?

The idea that people will degenerate due to increasing reliance on technology (or something that functions like it, such as slavery) is an old one, and has been put forth as one of the possible causes of the fall of the Roman Empire.  More recently, it was brilliantly illustrated in Pixar's film Wall*E, where the human race is depicted as having depended on their robotic creations for so long that they have descended into a race of barely animate blobs, largely unaware of their surroundings, and motivated by nothing but an increasingly desperate search for entertainment.

It's also a very old idea that civilization is on the verge of collapsing.  Some of the earliest examples of writing we have, stemming from ancient Egypt thousands of years before the birth of Christ, complain about how much better things were in the good old days, and how everything since then has been going to the dogs.

How is it that everything has been sliding out of control for so many thousands of years, and yet there are still people around to complain about it?

I would argue that the crux of the issue is the constancy of change.  Sometimes things change rapidly, sometimes things change slowly, but it never comes to a complete stop.  Political revolutions challenge the old power structures, waged by youth who wear outlandish clothing, and completely ignore the accepted methods of political engagement and boldly protest and rebel in brand new ways.  And lest you think I'm talking about the 1960s, or perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement, I actually had in mind Julius Caesar's rise to power in the late Roman Republic.  Maybe some things never change.

Change inevitably seems destructive to the previous generation.  The old values are thrown out the window.  It seems like the world is coming to an end.  And it is - their world.  What they (understandably) fail to appreciate is that when one world comes to an end, another one rises up to take it's place.  And so the cycle continues.

As much as we may be annoyed by the ghastly and garish fashions that the next generation inevitably adopts, we can presumably agree that fashion is in the eye of the beholder, and that one generation's tastes cannot be objectively demonstrated to be inferior to another's.  (At least if we ignore the 1970s.)  But some things can be measured.  Doesn't a decline in mathematical ability across the generations indicate a genuine loss?  This can be objectively measured.  So can knowledge of critical facts about the world.  Or the ability to react effectively to a crisis.  Aren't there objective yardsticks by which we can measure gain and loss?

The Fall of the Roman Empire once again provides an interesting case study.  The population of the city of Rome had, fairly objectively, lost their physical and psychological ability to wage effective war.  They were pushovers for the rising powers of the Goths and the Huns.  Surely this is an objective example of civilization going to the dogs?

Maybe not.  Sometimes lost in the discussion is the fact that the Roman Empire never exactly fell, not in the sense of having the entire continent of Europe sitting happily as a thriving metropolis on one day, to be replaced by a smoldering crater the next. The city of Rome was sacked, to be sure.  Some of the large scale economic trade routes and complex industries disappeared, true.  But for many of the inhabitants of the Empire, the fall of the Empire was barely noticeable.  One day they were citizens of Rome.  The next day, somebody came along and told them that for the last five years, they'd been citizens of the Ostrogothic Kingdom.  Taxed continued to be paid, official corruption continued, and everybody complained about how much better things used to be, when everybody wore togas and spoke proper Latin, instead of this degenerate Italian which seems to be spreading everywhere.

And why was it that nobody seemed interested in learning to speak proper Latin anymore?  It's not that people had become stupid, or otherwise incapable of learning the language of their forebears.  It simply wasn't useful anymore.  What was the point of learning a language that you couldn't do trade in, woo a girl with, or use to gripe with your friends?  It might be useful if you wanted to read a bunch of really old books, but that didn't really describe most of the population.

So returning to our previous question, is the loss of mathematical ability the sign of decline?  Or is it simply a reflection that those skills no longer make any sense?  What's the point, when your computer, your phone, your tablet, and maybe even your watch can calculate any mathematical product you can type, faster than you can type it?

Critics of this perspective will point out that it represents a loss of independence.  If all our computers, phones, tablets, and digital watches go simultaneously on the fritz, then we'll all be sorry we never learned to do math properly.

Or not.  More likely, we'll wish we had spent more time learning how to fight off mutant zombies using home made spears and improvised explosives, because the zombie apocalypse (or something like it) is the most likely scenario which will result in a complete breakdown of technology.

This brings us back to our original question: is there value in creating a Personal Data Warehouse, which can be used to measure our skills and relative progress across our lives and across the generations?  In theory, I'm a keen supporter of any way that  technology can be used to improve our individual lives.  I like the concept.

But a Data Warehouse is intrinsically a structured repository of data.  It allows you to organize vast amounts of data to spot complex patterns.  It's a great way to see sales trends, or weather patterns, or traffic flow, among reams of data that would otherwise be unintelligible.  The challenging part of designing a Data Warehouse is understanding what types of questions you may want to ask, which influences the structure of your data.

So what are your values?  What things are you going to measure?  And what makes you think those values will continue to be valued by the next generation?  My forebears might have created their own version of a data warehouse to measure skill in archery and driving horse-drawn chariots, skills at which I would fail miserably.  But I'm pretty good at navigating a Subaru through snow covered roads, a skill I find highly valuable.  My ability to re-materialize following an inter-dimensional trans-warp is nonexistent, a fact that bothers me not at all, but which might make me a laughingstock if I'm still around in two or three generations when that's the only way to travel.  I might snarl at these kids who don't know the first thing about a stick shift, but I suspect they won't care.

So if we're going to try to measure ourselves through time, it's going to be a trick to do so in a way that holds up over time.  Mind you, I'm not saying it can't be done, but I'll have to be convinced that whatever measures we choose are truly useful over time, and not simply a reflection of our current tastes.  The closest thing we have right now for this type of human record is the memoir.  It's a useful document, highly flexible in it's ability to track lots of variable data, but it lacks something in terms of analytical and comparative analysis.  At least it lasts.

Now, should I publish mine on paper or ebook...?

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