Once, journalists knew some things, but not all things. So they reported on some murders, the ones that raised eyebrows. They wrote about some events around town, and some that happened far away. They wrote most stories about the unordinary and occasionally questioned the ordinary.
Now we know everything. We know every murder in Los Angeles, ever person who’s been killed by police in 2015, every mass shooting in 2015, every mass grave found in Mexico uncovered in the last 10 years and how many bodies in each one. We even know every insult Trump has made on Twitter in the last 7 months.
Sure, there are limits. We know every school shooting in 2015 as Vox defines it. We know only as much detail as we’ve chosen to collect, within the timeframe we’ve chosen. And we sometimes use words that no numbers at all can explain. If a man is black, what makes him black? If a man is unarmed, what makes him unarmed?
Certainly, knowing the tally is not everything. There are other questions. About why it happened and what’s to be done about it, and who were the people before they were in the spreadsheet, and who are they now.
Somehow though, reading the ‘Every Time This Thing Happened, Mapped’ stories feels like an ending instead of a beginning. The definitiveness feels heavy. Like we should take a moment just to recite the names, and that will take up all the time we have.
This isn’t true only of journalists by the way. There are fields now for computational sociology and computational criminology and computational everything else. It’s another way of saying big data. Ocean big data. Space size data. Data data data.
It’s so enticing, this notion of knowing, of capturing the squirming human psyche in a gridlike model. But have we?
Already in 1921 Walter Lippman was lamenting the impossiblities of knowing everything and the weakness of applying the certainty of physics to the haphazard knowing of the social sciences, which sounds remarkably like journalism. He writes, “If you are going to Armageddon, you have to battle for the Lord, but the political scientist is always a little doubtful whether the Lord called him.”
What a wonderful way to describe it.
Maybe as time goes on we’ll find out that with enough data even the human is knowable, but at least for the foreseeable future we’ll continue to elude ourselves.