I was mindlessly browsing the internet the other day, as one does, and I came across an article promising to reveal the 21st century’s sexiest career. I must say, I never expected Yahoo! Finance to be so infatuated with “data scientists.” Had I been choosing, I probably would have gone with something hypermodern and typically sexualized like “reality TV villain” or “heiress.” Frankly, when I first read the article, I didn’t even know what a “data scientist” does.
As it turns out, data scientists analyze statistics and advise institutions accordingly. It’s a job heading not fully developed but already highly prized and well paid (hence its 21st century sexiness). Institutions from every sector of the economy — business, government, religion, academia — are in need of advisors with a strong background in analytics and statistical math necessary to understand behaviors within their sphere of interest. For example, a sporting goods retailer might hire a data scientist to find out which regions spend the most on sporting goods. The data scientist, then, would look at things like obesity rates, per capita incomes or the regional popularity of high school sports, so that he can produce an accurate and comprehensive mathematical picture of reality that in turn helps a company make money.
So-named sexy data scientists aside, the word “sexy” has been notoriously misapplied through history. But the more I think about data science, the more I see its sexiness is obvious to our place in time. Data is no longer boring, as I thought it once was. Just look at UCSB. Here, our friends fight bitterly to study accounting, we’re asked to fill out surveys every time we check our emails and our perm numbers are (as ugly as it sounds to say) crucial to our identity as students. I experienced a little culture shock coming here, probably because I was drawing from a cartoon-informed vision of what statisticians, accountants and computer scientists do.
Still, though, I think we’re looking at something new. I don’t think accounting was always sexy and I don’t think data always meant as much to us.
Is it because we live in a more rational, science-driven age? I don’t think so. We actually value the scientific method less than certain 18th century thinkers who thought it could solve all life’s problems. None of them, obviously, had the same connection to data that we do.
My take on the paradigm shift is a little different. I think it’s about the role data has played in our growing up and the way we use it so extensively now. After all, we’ve all sent off a meaningful email or an emotional text. We’ve all proudly fashioned our Facebook profiles to mean something about who we are. In one way or another, we’ve all had a heart-to-heart in the ones and zeroes of computer programming.
I’m not going to say that’s a problem. At least, not exactly. I, like you, have heard too many angry sermons about the cold robotic future we’re creating for ourselves. We do interact with other people; we’re not socially disabled because our face-to-face contact has been diminished by technology. In fact, I’m not even sure we’re all that diminished from previous generations. Plus, if you read the history of the American farmer, it’s one of almost unimaginable isolation.
But I do think we need to make a practice of diplomacy, as it may not come as naturally in the digital age. There’s still something intangible and more effective about spoken interaction, especially when something is being negotiated. When emailing, you have to concern yourself with precision in language, exactness in tone and concision in length. Moreover, emails are easy to delete. Negotiating in person can actually save time and grief because arguably the human face is so innately appealing that it’s hard to reject.
Personally, I’m actually trying to include less and less meaning in my emails. I’m trying to make them vague and unclear. The less I send electronically, the less I find myself attracted to data, the less I leave myself open to digital criticism, the less — in fact — I foresee a future in cold, robotic shades.
Ben Moss called it off with Siri shortly before writing this column: “Siri, baby, I love you but, well, sometimes you just come off as a little too cold and robotic for my tastes.”
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of the May 7, 2013 print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted primarily by students.