sat 22/07/2017

Sunday Book: Christian Madsbjerg - Sensemaking | reviews, news & interviews

Sunday Book: Christian Madsbjerg - Sensemaking

Sunday Book: Christian Madsbjerg - Sensemaking

A book that uses 'thick data' to challenge algorithms

Christian Madsbjerg: making sense of sensemaking?Alex Staniloff

Two pernicious practices dominate Christian Madsbjerg's Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm: algorithm addiction and fake philosophy. The author thinks one is the answer to the other, thus cancelling out most of the argument, but when his guard drops a few chinks of wisdom do peep through.

In the managerial motivation industry in which Madsbjerg operates, you coin a plausibly vague word or acronym and claim novelty for the mixture of banality and tendentiousness that results.  “Sensemaking” is pretty routine in this respect: the best example I’ve encountered was a programme under the rubric SUMO (Shut Up and Move On).

Sensemaking means making sense of the world in the old-fashioned way, the way we did before algorithms (in case we’ve already forgotten). At one point Madsbjerg unwittingly demolishes much of his edifice: “Sensemaking confirmed what many of us already feel in our day-to-day lives.” (This about a project that sees supermarket shopping as “actually a kind of stage setting or scenography for the cultural narrative of cooking”.)

Unless Madsjberg's motivational motor has revved him up to the speed of light, he should SUMO

So it goes on. It’s an odd thesis that espouses the humanities and art though the language of the Orwellian phrase “thick data”. Was he unaware of the Orwell over his shoulder as he wrote; of how corrupt language corrupts thought? He is arguing using the terms set by the enemy.

Madsbjerg is against big data and scientism (the misuse of science). Yes, aren’t most of us?  But he’s also guilty of the classic misuse of science, still peddling the “Einstein-shows-us-all-is-relative” line 100 years on. I had hoped that the physicist Steven Weinberg had finally put an end to this false appropriation when he wrote, re psychologist Jean Piaget's claim that young children have “some understanding of relativity but lose it in adulthood”: "As if relativity were somehow logically or philosophically necessary, rather than a conclusion ultimately based on observations of things that travel at or near the speed of light." Unless Madsbjerg’s motivational motor has revved him up to the speed of light, re Einstein and the Relativity of Everyday Life he should SUMO.

Not content with misappropriating science, he does the same with poetry. A chapter on creativity kicks off with T. S. Eliot, whose Prufrock and The Waste Land are held up as indicative of a world in which “the gods have fled, a world without any divine glow of meaning surrounding human action”. But Eliot’s poems were not statements about the Zeitgeist but about his developing personal existential crisis and, in the case of The Waste Land, his breakdown. He wrote of the latter poem that it was merely a piece of “rhythmical grumbling”. When Eliot did address the state of the world it was in the conventional, uncreative terms of a reactionary pessimist: “…Here were decent godless people: / Their only monument the asphalt road / And a thousand lost golf balls” (Choruses from the Rock).

The philosophical underpinning of Madsbjerg’s programme stems from phenomenology, structuralism and the school of Heidegger. So, much of it reads liked the anti-realist propaganda of the postmodern 1980s – dated in other words and mostly discredited.

As the book goes on, and the slogans retreat before some case studies, things perk up little. His treatment of George Soros’s techniques for exploiting market moods to make a killing is revealing and convincing. Nevertheless, although I admire the work of Soros’s foundation (not discussed here), it’s a strange plank of Madsbjerg’s supposed defence of everything human against machine learning to cite as evidence the techniques that broke the Bank of England.

The case against algorithms can be made much more simply than Madsbjerg manages. Whenever I hear the word “algorithm” I reach for my guitar. Meaning: why are we obsessed with getting machines to do what our hands, senses and brains can do in far more interesting ways? We should simply resist the pointless mechanisation of interesting human activities that engage hand, heart and brain. Of course, of course, I know: it’s not pointless to the perpetrators! Algorithms are wonderful tools for exploitation, as the current furore over the activities of some big-data miners in trying to game public opinion for political or financial gain demonstrates. Resistance to the algorithm is vital but it doesn’t start with this book.

  • Christian Madsbjerg's Sensemaking: What Makes Human Intelligence Essential in the Age of the Algorithm is published by Little, Brown (£14.99)
  • More book reviews on theartsdesk
Algorithms are wonderful tools for exploitation, as the current furore over the activities of some big-data miners in trying to game public opinion for political or financial gain demonstrates


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