March 18, 2015

The Best of All Possible Charts and Graphs

A revolving metal cylinder containing a sacred text, the Tibetan prayer wheel is set in motion by the turn of a human hand. The result is an automated form of prayer, which the votary believes may secure good fortune and the prospect of liberation from the round of birth and death. The belief system that the prayer wheel serves may possess a certain archaic charm, with its sacred texts displaying a dialectical subtlety not often found in western philosophy. Still, it will be self-evident to any modern mind that the device is thoroughly unscientific. How much better to fashion a high-tech prayer wheel – an electronic tablet containing inspirational statistics on the progress of humankind, powered by algorithms that show this progress to be ongoing.

Unlike the old-fashioned prayer wheel, the device would be based on the latest scientific knowledge. Programmed to collect and process big data, it would have the ability to deliver statistics that never fail to show long-term improvement in the human condition. If regress of any kind was happening, it would appear as a temporary pause in the forward march of the species. In order to ward off moods of doubt – to which even the most convinced believers in improvement are occasionally prone – the device would broadcast sound versions of the uplifting statistics. Best of all, the device would be designed to be worn at all times.

-- John Gray, on the role of the stats, charts, and graphs in Steven Pinker's account of our nature's better angels' inexorable Whiggish progress from the Englightenment to the positivist earthly paradise that is allegedly just about almost pretty much here already. (He also references the matrices of John Dee's angels, unexpectedly and aptly. The sweeping final section would be worth reading for the masterful rhetoric alone, even if he weren't on to something, which I believe he is.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at March 18, 2015 04:23 PM