when data is a substitute for relationship

so something i’ve noticed (and i’m sure i’m not the first) is how often “data” is used as a substitute for relationship.

the flow usually looks something like this: we’re over here and they’re over there. we want to help them (but we don’t actually want to do take any actions that, in helping them, might meaningfully change our own lives/selves). so let’s collect some data about them (maybe us, too) and then use it to decide what we can do to help them. but let’s definitely keep the system in place, especially all the parts that allow us to remain comfortable and unchanged by (even the little bit of) contact with them.


what’s fascinating and terrible to me about these initiatives is that, imo, they are just trying to shortcut connection. in so many of these situations, all it would take is a few meaningful relationships to make action plans clear. instead of getting to know people who live in public housing, housing policy makers collect data about what does and doesn’t work. instead of getting to know the teachers, parents, and students in “underperforming” schools, funders want other organizations to implement programs that track how donations improve statisical data about populations they want to help. in this piece, Scientists Start To Tease Out The Subtler Ways Racism Hurts Health, it’s crazy that this study was even needed. studies like this are often used to then justify system changes or shifts in money flows/support of initiative meant to lessen problem. but if people just KNEW people negatively impacted by racism, the action i think would be clear already.

as francisco varela said, “when a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.” when other humans are suffering, the solutions are most easily found in relationship. we do so much to keep ourselves from needing/having to form real relationships across difference.

of course, this isn’t an anti-data post. there is some stuff (i think) that we actually can get to places of understanding we wouldn’t have known without data (especially about system-scale phenomena). and when data is used as a substitute for relationship, it seems to me much much more expensive than just people knowing each other and caring about each other.

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