The Numbers are keeping me awake at night

I didn’t sleep well last night. Like, at all. I hyped myself up all day launching this blog and then obsessed on checking my Twitter and website stats to see how it was doing. I want this thing to be a success, damn it!

Unoriginal thought: what if turning reality into numbers changes reality? We know that observing a phenomenon alters it. Quantum theory and all that. What if watching my website analytics to see “if it (read: I) is doing well” is changing my definition of what it means to “do well”. What starts as an authentic creative endeavour – telling my story for the fun of it – soon blurs into an addictive numbers game. What content is performing? Let’s create more of that. But it’s hard to create anything original that way. It’s a well-known fact that by training AI and machine learning models on historical data we are creating the future in the past’s image. 

Vulnerability as Brand Strategy

As a writer, designer and thinker of sporadically creative thoughts, this has got me worried about the possibility of original thought. As a tech evangelist, the picture is a little more blurred. Yes, I want to create content that generates traffic which leads to sales. The numbers definitely help me do that.

I also think that originality and something like ‘unique voice’ are crucial to any brand trying to distinguish itself from the avalanche of marketing communication that floods over us all on a daily basis. And I think this is especially true for the over-hyped data / AI / machine-learning space.

Call me naive, call me old-school — but I think there’s a market out there for authentic, anti-hype tech and AI brands that acknowledge the fact that their user base (data scientists, engineers and developers) are intelligent and skeptical human beings who want to see the faults in the system in order to build trust with the brand. Vulnerability as a marketing strategy — I really think there’s something to this.

The Number Gods

Numbers give us a grip on a reality that’s gotten far too large and complex to jot down on a sheet of paper. We absolutely need those numbers to make sense of things like (web) traffic flows, climate change and the human genome. But where’s the line between using the numbers…and the numbers using us?

“Computation has evolved into something so pervasive and so seductive that we have come to prefer to use it even when simpler mechanical, physical, or social processes will do… As computation and its products increasingly surround us, are assigned power and the ability to generate truth, and step in to take over more and more cognitive tasks, so reality itself takes on the appearance of a computer; and our modes of thought follow suit.”

(James Bridle, New Dark Age)

Or in my own words: the numbers have some sort of powerful sex-appeal over us. For some reason, they often feel more real than our own intuition. They are the external source of authority and affirmation we turn to because we don’t trust ourselves. Maybe the numbers are the new God in town. Maybe we need a new renaissance to dethrone Them as our divine overlord and assert our innate worthiness as humans.

Or maybe it’s 2am and I should get some sleep. Toddler will be up soon. 

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