Revolution of numbers: from Arpanet to Big Data

Revolution of numbers: from Arpanet to Big Data


There are two opposing ontological positions in the discussion of what is real and what is not. Either numbers are in the world to be discovered, or man has invented numbers and thus created reality, finding himself locked into his own creation. The first philosophers of ancient Greece based their schools of thought on the measurement of the world, on the beauty of geometry to calculate surfaces, distances and numbers; perimeter, periphery, radius, pi, omega, powers, roots and a long etcetera appeared then, but, they did not yet realize that their measurements served a system created by them, a language endowed with meaning by them and for themselves.

For the Pythagoreans, the one (1) signified every essence of the good and the foundation of everything that exists, the two (2) everything masculine, the three (3) everything feminine… the ten (10) the perfect number, the Tetraktys, totality in movement. For the Pythagoreans each number had a sacred symbolism and a certain capacity to “unravel the hidden order of the world” (Luque and Calero, 2019, p. 12), to reveal the arche (from the Greek ἀρχή, “beginning” or “origin”), or to reveal the apeiron or the limitless, that which is beyond the beginning and the end, beyond all that exists, will exist and existed. What is most disturbing in this numerical mysticism is the finiteness of man and his ability to come close to measuring infinity, to reach a googol (10^100, so large that it exceeds the number of existing atoms in the universe) or to create realities from them.

For the dataists this philosophical discussion has no place, numbers are computational languages endowed with meaning, therefore, the universe is a constant flow of information stored in zeros and ones. For data scientists any phenomenon or entity acquires value as long as it can be reduced to numbers, i.e. if for the Pythagoreans 1 was the essence of all that is good and the foundation of all that exists, for data scientists 1 represents a high probability that a customer will buy a product, and 2 could be the total rejection of the advertising campaign made the previous month and the rejection or dismissal of some members of the company (to give exaggerated examples). Although data, like words, are loaded with meaning, this “translatability” of data has been the cause of the rise and fall of thousands of companies, the success or failure of an athlete or advertising campaign, the dismissal of personnel and large falls or rises in the stock market; all because every expression, feeling and human action has been reduced to numerical categories, to statistics and probabilities.

Dataism, as various authors have argued, is the “religion of data”; the absolute belief (or perhaps reality) in Big Data. It has martyrs, heretics and a huge and unconscious following of followers sharing their personal information as free will. These massive data allow the elaboration of sophisticated predictive behavior patterns; the human being is then a simple manipulable algorithm, ready to be processed and analyzed, at the service of statistics ordering him what to do and what not to do.

Not everything is bad in this religion, dataism has also been strategic not only for personal or business decision making, but it has also allowed the design of public policies based on meeting the needs of a population, which have been recorded through data. These macro data also allow a deeper approach to current problems, raise questions that companies would not have asked without the collection of statistical data, detect problems, shortcomings or sectors with problems, in order to provide a solution in time, either by improving the problem or creating new products to meet market needs.

The important thing then is not to collect more data, nor to ask ourselves which came first, the number or the reality, but to think of real solutions that meet current needs based on the data, thus generating new strategies that allow a better use and better results. 

And you, do you believe in data? 

Facts you should know about data: 

  • A data is a symbolic representation, representing different amounts of information.
  • Data are events, realities, entities, which individually mean nothing as long as a human being endows it with meaning.
  • Data acquire meaning when they are observed under the lens of a researcher with an objective, and can acquire different meanings depending on the interest of the user.
  • There are master’s degrees in Big Data analytics.
  • Big Data specialists are among the most sought-after professionals in technology.

By Alejandra Lenis Mendoza
Communications Area

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