To pass the social system off as an objective artifact determined by (quasi-) scientific processes, forecasting has to scapegoat “irresponsible” individuals for failing to live up to the terms of the forecast. Adorno writes that “the constant appeal of the column to find fault with oneself rather than with given conditions” is evidence of “the implicit but ubiquitous rule that one has to adjust oneself continuously to commands of the stars at a given time.” When forecasts end up being inaccurate, the fault lies not in the prediction methodology but the individual’s failure to adjust to the forecaster’s advice.
This piece by Robin James calls out big data through the lens of Adorno’s critique of astrology. “Big data doesn’t forecast the future but remakes the present in the image of down-to-earth stereotypes.” It gives a voice to a lot of feelings I’ve felt that push against not just the privacy angle, but having to do with casting narratives about people. It reminded me of how at one point in the history of psychology there was a debate about whether academic psychology was concerned with individuals or populations. In as much as that ship has sailed, it is nearly myopic in its concern with groups. Which is to say: it is not a deductive inference to move from generalizations about a group to an individual. Nor is it even necessarily a transductive inference, but an inductive one. That debate was settled long ago: the focus is on groups, because that’s more descriptive. But the movements of big data, modeling, and forecasting have started swinging the pendulum in the other direction. Anyway. It’s a very good article.
Also, I clapped out loud when I read this, about the self-tracking movement and how it becomes a kind of imperative to fixing oneself rather than highlighting problems to be addressed collectively:
Adorno explains how this can seem empowering but really isn’t: “The idea that the stars, if only one reads them correctly, offer some advice mitigates the very same fear of the inexorability of social processes the stargazer himself creates.” It reinforces the neoliberal myth of individual responsibility for social problems and misdirects our attention toward dumbed-down superficial solutions to complex social problems. For example, framing problems of political economy, class, and race as an “obesity epidemic” assumes both that obesity is a problem and that it is a problem that can be solved by modifying individual behavior (diet, exercise).
This gets at something I rarely hear talked about and never hear from people focused on the technological side of things.