Quantification Is Representation

The world is very rich and complex. Doesn’t trying to reduce it to data lose something vital? Of course!

All quantification throws out information. It has to. That’s the point of abstraction: to strip away enough detail that it’s possible to use powerful general-purpose reasoning tools. Most things are thrown out when you go from three actual apples to “three apples” recorded in a database. We don’t know anything about the color and size of the apples, or why they are there, and maybe one of them is half rotten. If we choose “apple” as our sole unit of symbolic representation, we will be blind to everything else.

But in journalism we throw out information all the time when we select whom we talk to, what we include and exclude in our story, and what we choose to write about at all. Quantification represents the world through the systematic creation of data, a limited but powerful way to gather and summarize information.

Fortunately, quantification is neither mysterious nor fixed by nature. Quantification is always a designed process. If there is some reasonable way to quantify what we care about, a marvelous universe of analysis, representation, and prediction techniques open up to us.

Counting is limited, but there are many things that are best known by counting.

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