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The Age of Big Data and the Death of Theory
piero scaruffi   Sep 21, 2012   piero scaruffi  

Is the World Wide Web and modern technology… replacing the human mind? Knowledge today is not a set of theories, but instead just Data, and the machine is a better place to store data than the human mind.

Thousands of years ago the human race invented something called “science” that basically consists in learning a general rule out of many events such that one can later predict events of the same kind.

Science creates “theories” that constitute “understanding” of how the world works, and that one can then apply while living in the world. “Understanding” the world and “surviving” in the world became two sides of the same coin.

The World-wide Web is one tool that has changed that relationship. We can search for and find instructions to do something without ever learning any theory about it.

Of course there have always been “experts” who knew the theory and would help people who didn’t know the theory; but now the vast amount of data on the Web is making the expert irrelevant. We don’t need to “understand” the world in order to find a solution to our problem: we just need to know how to search for the solution on the Web. The “navigator” is another example: we don’t need to understand the territory to travel from one point to another point because the navigator has all the data required to plan the route.

It is not just that these tools are replacing the human mind. That would be the case if they contained the theory, if they worked the way the human mind used to work; but they don’t use a theory. The theory itself becomes irrelevant when the tool can access enough data.

For example, we learn the theory called “arithmetic” that allows us to computer the addition of two numbers. Once you know the theory, you can compute the addition of any numbers. However, you wouldn’t need the theory anymore if you had a virtually infinite list of all possible additions and their results: 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 1+3=4, etc. Then you would simply look up the addition that you need and find the result. We “discovered” the laws of gravitation to be able to predict where Mars will be on a particular day; but if we can just store and access Mars’ orbit minute by minute (and the orbits and motions of all planets and stars), why bother figuring out that law? What is happening as more and more data become available is that we don’t need to “teach” a tool the theory: the tool has access to enough data that can provide all the answers.

The very concept of knowledge is changing. Knowledge used to be about theories. Even when encyclopedias were invented, there were still meant for minds equipped with theories. The Web and many of the digital tools that can access a virtually infinite amount of “cases” are relieving minds of the need for theories. You need to know only “what you want”, not how the world implements that thing.

Knowledge is no longer about “understanding the world”. You don’t need to know how your navigator works, a fact that has to do with latitude, longitude, the fact that the Earth is round, down to the details of your country, region, town and neighborhood. You just need to enter the address where you want to go. In fact, you can simply enter the name of the person or business, and not even know the address (not even have a theory of what an address is).

Knowledge is not a set of theories, but instead just data, and lots of data, and the machine is a better place to store them than the human mind.

If “understanding” the world is becoming less and less important, then the way the human mind works is changing dramatically. It is likely that the ability to create “theories” is precisely the main difference between the human species and other species. The mind of other species deals with a much more basic “understanding” of the world (e.g., bananas are food). The human mind must have been doing something very different all those thousands of years when it needed to continuously invent, store, use and teach theories.

The human mind might be undergoing a transformation that is comparable (but exactly the opposite in direction) to the transformation that took place when it first started constructing general, abstract truths from specific cases.

If theory dies, then perhaps the human mind as we know it will die too.

piero scaruffi
piero scaruffi is an author, cultural historian and blogger who has written extensively about a wealth of topics, ranging from cognitive science to music.


This is disturbingly reminiscent of _1984_. How long will it be before the limits on what we say become limits on what we _can_ say (or think)?  Minds thus flattened would be controlled much more easily—perhaps by our AI overlords?

This is a very juvenile understanding of knowledge if you intended these remarks to be understood as a broad epidemiological stroke.  While the knowledge of “how things work” is often a form of compression, you somehow completely neglect how this understanding enriches the human experience. Understanding the world around us through our various formulas of compression, which are largely individualized, makes space for imagination and invention.  Without imagination and invention, there would be no new ideas, and without experts working to further understand these ideas, no human trails could be blazed through the cloud of data that surrounds us.  Machines can be relied upon to blaze efficient trails (to make headway), it will be the human interaction with and understanding of these machined paths that will lead to a richer body of knowledge. 

The knowledge that enriches our lives is often full of chaos, misinterpretation, debate and ignorance, but it is precisely these inefficiencies that allows us to live rich lives of mental evolution. Comprehension and understanding are vital aspects of joy and wonder.

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