We’re a generation that can’t be qualified. First, we were Organization kids. Then, we were the Boomerang Generation. Then, Generation Next, Generation Facebook, the Millennials – the list goes on.
Almost every generation has an overarching, metanarrative, be it the GI Generation, Baby Boomers or Generation X. But finding one arc has proved near impossible for us 16 to 25 year olds across the country. Despite historians’, sociologists’ and social scientists’ best efforts to categorize us, we elude framing. Why? Simply put, we’re living in the midst of a paradigmatic shift. The 21st century is a place for quantity-based assessment, proving 20th century quality evaluations a mere artifact of history.
What does a quantified world entail? It means all the books of the Victorian era are now scannable by simple keystroke. It means every Amazon search we make helps Amazon better guess our preferences, needs and wants. It means eHarmony, or chemistry.com, or match.com or zoosk.com — and that’s just a small sampling — can systematically find us an adequate partner.
During his Convocation speech to incoming freshmen, University President John J. DeGioia described the general idea of the phenomena: “You have access to information,” presumably unlike any generation ever before. In the subtext, though, lurks a more ominous cautionary: We’re being constantly understood and individually classified by the data we provide.
Who are those interested in us? Yale University econometrician and lawyer Ian Ayres describes the emergence of the “super crunchers” in his like-named book. As society pushes to better understand every facet of reality, an elite group of statisticians are more than happy to oblige. Super crunchers are the people who process everything out there.
The super crunchers take the data deluge and use it to understand, predict and even conceive individuals. When you can isolate and identify individuals, there’s no need for collective understandings. Everyone can be his or her own generational group.
Where does all the data come from? First, we live in an age lacking a delete button. Storage capacity of information grows exponentially every year. All the while, we continue to produce it, and at faster rates.
Consider the example of Twitter. In 2008, Twitter barely existed. Now the 230 million tweets a day are just a drop in the bucket compared to the terabytes of data we produce.
Second, the generational data we don’t create ourselves is still aggregated by the super cruncherswithout us knowing. Even if you act the role of conscientious objector who abstains from social media (yeah, right), think about the tools of modern life. Google, Amazon, Netflix and even Georgetown know all they need to quantify and group you in buckets of like people.
Sometimes they simply look at public data — like voting records, license registration, your listed address – and other times they dig deeper — consumer information from credit card companies for instance. The take away, though, is the fact that they manage to find and use data about us.
As a source of quantity, data is inescapable and intractable. Quality measures, on the other hand, seem increasingly intangible. Why try anything new when you can predict its affect and effect beforehand? We Google for reviews, ask our friends for recommendations, and all the while mitigate risks wherever we go.
In many respects, the data revolution is the result of our impulse to understand. With understanding, though, comes a price — privacy, most noticeably — but, also our willingness to censor our public persona and better understand other points of view.
The world of customization eliminates chance, all while pushing us to either submit to our own preferences or submit to an advertiser’s suggested preferences. In turn, our preference-based decisions take away some of the humanity and humility that once allowed collective understanding.
Though the quantity world we live in isn’t without benefit — empirical medicine and counterterrorismdata-mining come to mind — we must ask ourselves: at what cost? We’re the first generation to be born into a computable world, surrounded by data at every juncture of life. We’re predictable, explicable and explainable by data, all in ways never before imagined.
But there’s still a void, one that quantity will never fill. It’s the answer to the immortal question, “Who are we?” Today, it can only be adequately answered with, “Who knows?”
Michael Meaney is a senior in the SFS and Matthew Hoyt is a senior in the College. They are the president and director of communications of the Georgetown University Student Association, respectively. THE STATE OF NATURE appears every other Tuesday.