Friday, December 14, 2012

You are not a number

The NYT carries two articles on different topics but with similar titles and even more similar messages: “Messi’s Brilliance Transcends His Numbers,” and “Dear Rafiki, You Are Not Your SAT Score.” I suspect Ethan Roeder, the chief quant of the Obama re-election campaign, would want to argue this point a bit. He would acknowledge that data cannot tell us everything about anyone; but would probably add that they, nevertheless, provide valuable information if analyzed properly.


Mr. Roeder recently published an opinion piece, again in the NYT, pronouncing a bit defensively: “I Am Not Big Brother.” Addressing concerns about the way his operation had been able to parse and target individual would-be-voters, he offered the following clarifications:


You may chafe at how much the online world knows about you, but campaigns don’t know anything more about your online behavior than any retailer, news outlet or savvy blogger.


There are two categories of online data: information users provide explicitly, and stuff they communicate implicitly through their behavior. Combined, these two categories of data allow a campaign to put together an online experience that will resonate with as many people as possible, but also to customize the experience so that you are more likely to encounter content that’s relevant to you.


In a nation of over 200 million eligible voters, technology is allowing campaigns to finally see through the fog of the crowd and engage voters one by one.


In 2012 you didn’t just have to be an African-American from Akron or a suburban married female age 45 to 54. More and more, the information age allows people to be complicated, contradictory and unique. New technologies and an abundance of data may rattle the senses, but they are also bringing a fresh appreciation of the value of the individual to American politics.


I guess all this will be mightily reassuring for anyone who has overblown concern about the increasing grip of “big data” on all spheres of social – and private – life.


The SAT piece (in fact, a blog post) also seeks to reassure a targeted audience – high-school students whose SAT scores may come in below their own expectations. The author is Maimuna A. Yssuf, a young woman from Somalia enrolled in a prestigious South African “leadership academy.”

I have to say I found a bit off-putting the way Ms. Yussuf opens her essay: “Most people would agree that numbers are a measure of value; this is true in regard to assets and investments.” My first thought was: “What kind of brain operation must a teenager have undergone in order to spit out so casually this chilly string of 20 words” I usually fail to generate a Jane Austin or Tolstoy-style opening sentence, too – and should not be overly critical; but still… Reading on, though, I was relieved to observe that Ms. Yussuf has intuitively grasped two nuggets of wisdom (her word) which have long been belabored by constructivist and deconstructivist academics, self-help gurus, etc.: “1. Nothing is really what it appears to be. 2. Everything is what you make of it.

Some experts might retort that the SAT exam is a “thinly veiled IQ test”; adding that there is, after all, a statistically significant correlation between IQ results and educational (and life) outcomes. But, of course, an IQ score should not be taken as the measure of any young man or woman either. That rule should be particularly applicable to Ms. Yussuf and the other 7 high-school student blogging at the NYT web site about their epic pursuit of a dream college or university. I bet they will be pursued by academic head-hunters even if they fail to score in the 99 percentile.

The article on Messi, by the way, is sublime – quite fitting for his inimitable playing style. It reminded me of the slightly blasphemous title of that older profile penned – ahem, typed – 6 years ago by the late David Foster Wallace: “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.” Federer is, needless to say, a lot more aristocratic in his demeanor – and product endorsements. But he and Messi do share an increasingly rare personal trait: self-restraint which is, apparently, not bought at the expense of the stereotypical Northern coldness.

In fact, the last paragraph in the Messi article prompted me to formulate a mildly provocative hypothesis related to the stereotype I just mentioned. Tito Vilanova, the current Barcelona manager is quoted there as saying: “We will not see a player like this ever again. Not just for his goal-scoring capacity and for his ability to see a pass, but for the way he understands the game in attack and defense.” My educated guess is that Messi has a finely tuned default mode network and brain-body synergy (including polyvagal regulation) – courtesy of a social context in his native Argentina which did not require excessive abstracted analysis, personal detachment, attentional vigilance, and multi-tasking.

I am not sure if this theory would apply to Federer and other athletes (and non-athletes) blessed with an extraordinary “sixth sense” or “third eye.” I can quite confidently, though, make this prediction: Vilanova is quite right; 10 years from now, no upcoming player who has grown up in a “community” with affordable internet access will ever have the same claim to true greatness.