Does ‘Big Data’ Miss The Bigger Picture Of Things That Can’t Be Measured?

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‘I believe in no ism,’ a leading 19th century thinker and healer once wrote.

That’s certainly a whole lot of ‘isms’ to dismiss with five little words because, by implication, we are talking about ‘isms’ past, present and future.

In response to a misapprehension about her growing Christian Science movement founder Mary Baker Eddy felt a need to answer the question: ‘Am I a believer in spiritualism?’ Despite her firm rebuttal, she made it plain elsewhere in her writings that her disagreement was with the belief system, not its proponents.

‘I entertain no doubt of the humanity and philanthropy of many Spiritualists, but I cannot coincide with their views,’ she explained.

Far from the world of contrasting faiths, a very 21st century ‘ism’ doing the rounds is also being challenged: namely, ‘solutionism’. Or, more specifically, the discrepancy between creative problem solving and the belief in ‘technological solutionism’. In Evgeny Morozov’s book To Save Everything, Click Here that translates as ‘the temptation of the digital age to fix everything…by digitally quantifying, tracking or gamifying behaviour’. Writing in the Observer, he claims many influential people are passionate believers in this particular ‘ism’.

The same article flags up the impact such data gathering is having on healthcare, noting how government and businesses encourage us to use ‘self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms’ and want us to ‘monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies’.

Highlighting the ‘numerous possibilities such tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries’, Morozov says they not only want data already tracked by our smartphones, but expect us soon to use smart furniture, too – from mattresses monitoring our breathing and our heartbeats to smart utensils feeding us nutritional advice. Indeed, Microsoft and a leading US insurer already have a commitment to co-fund startups that aim to install similar sensors in our homes and cars for our ‘proactive protection’.

To which Morozov opined: ‘When do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?’

Yet the rush to gather our health data isn’t always imposed from the outside. The next great ‘selfie’ trend could well be health data we generate and share of our own volition.

I asked Morozov about this when he addressed a meeting in the House of Commons. I inquired about the trend of using technology for ‘predictive health’ – endeavouring to spot and pre-empt problems – given clinician concerns about the dangers of over-diagnosing and over-treating. He also saw a disturbing correlation.

‘Self-tracking allows [us] to find more and more problems and analyze more and more biomarkers and eventually find that everything is terrible,’ he said, pointing to a downward spiral of sensors inevitably indicating problems, in turn leading to the demand for drugs.

Of course, it’s not wrong to want ‘proactive protection’. And, for example, a smart carpet that can detect an elderly person falling when home alone is a very practical innovation. As Morozov’s Observer article notes: ‘Technophobia is no solution.’

Big data undoubtedly has great potential to serve society when employed with integrity. But big data, framed in terms of materialistic measurements, can also miss the mark both on the human scale of individual nuance and in the bigger picture of the impact of things that cannot be measured.

This is especially true in the case of healthcare where an increasing number of people see their route to gaining and sustaining wellness wrapped up in immeasurables, such as the desire and demand for growth in spiritual graces like forgiveness and love. And where many, like me, have found that looking away from the body to seek ‘health data’ from a diviner sense of ourselves can both sustain and restore our wellbeing.

Indeed, the healing impact of understanding my underlying, spiritual identity as always reflecting the order of an infinite intelligence, or divine Mind, has met my healthcare needs for over three decades. This has proved, to my satisfaction, an idea coined by Mary Baker Eddy: ‘Health is not a condition of matter, but of Mind.’ (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures)

She drew this conclusion from her practice of Christian ‘Mind-healing’ which evolved out of her growing dissatisfaction with, and disbelief in, the ‘ism’ that underlies all ‘isms’ – the materialism which would describe us primarily in terms of data such as our DNA profile or psychological history.

Fortunately this foundational ‘ism’ doesn’t ultimately define who we are. Nor can it permanently hide from us all we are created to be in the ‘image and likeness’ of the divine, as the Bible puts it.

As the move to mine big data gains momentum, we remain forever free to dig deeper for healing solutions and seek the spiritual growth and better health that a divinely accurate self-assessment can bring.

This was first posted on the Huffington Post UK blog, as: Can ‘Big Data’ Value Who We Truly Are?

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