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3 ways data can turn anyone into a psychopath, including you

Part 1 of a 3 Part series — The Perils and Promise of Data

Photo by Sankavi on Unsplash
Photo by Sankavi on Unsplash

A mild-mannered man transforms data into money, and the data in turn transforms him into a psychopath

There’s a small section in Ace Atkins’ incredible fiction book Wonderland, which shows a psychopathic antagonist unlike any we’ve ever read before.

The bad guy isn’t like Sauron from Lord of the Rings, or even like the Underwoods from House of Cards.

In fact, he might not even be a bad guy, let alone a psychopath.

But Dr. Harvey Rose does bad things all right, and his actions are certainly psychopathic.

Let’s take a step back.

The hidden psychopathy of datasets

In Wonderland, Atkins’ protagonist―Spenser from Spenser for Hire fame―learns about an apparent antagonist named Dr. Harvey Rose.

But Dr. Harvey Rose doesn’t seem to fit the mold of an antagonist at first.

Photo by Francesco Ungar on Unsplash
Photo by Francesco Ungar on Unsplash

Rose is an MIT-educated former Harvard Professor who is currently making a fortune by employing datasets to figure out what kind of casinos consumers want.

At first glance Rose appears to be just another quiet genius who turns his penchant for data-driven results into a business model that all but prints money.

But Spenser soon finds out that there is more here than just a positive revenue stream. A friend tells Spenser―

“If you think of your consumers as data sets and not people, it allows you to completely disengage from morality. Data sets are amoral. If the data says low-income consumers are more likely to spend that extra fifty bucks than middle-income consumers, then you target them. You don’t care if they can’t pay the rent or go to the doctor.”

“And as the model gets better and better, it becomes a manipulation tool. Based on past behavior, you can set up the optimal circumstances that pretty much guarantee the outcome. It almost destroys free will. We can know that they will, and how they will, and for how long, and under what conditions.”

From that perspective, Harvey Rose, and anyone who acts like him, effectively becomes a psychopath.

Keep in mind, neither Harvey Rose nor his acolytes are psychopaths per se, but through his data-driven approach they effectively become psychopathic, or at least perform psychopathic actions.

And in Wonderland, Dr. Rose’s actions allow him to become a psychopath writ large, so large that he becomes emblematic of the existential threat of a data-driven world.

Is Dr. Rose a psychopath?

We don’t know.

Are Dr. Rose’s data-driven actions psychopathic?

Without a doubt.

Psychopaths are self-centered, manipulative beings who are unable to feel empathy for others.

Dr. Rose might be the nicest, most caring person when you meet him in person, but if one of his models suggests an action that will indirectly destroy 200 families?

If the data model suggests the action will bring a small profit, Dr. Rose will take it every time.

That’s psychopathic action―psychopathic action writ large.

Atkins’ Spenser takes on existential threats in Wonderland, perhaps because enemies like Sauron―or even the Underwoods―don’t exist, whereas characters like Dr. Rose certainly do.

But you’re not Dr. Rose, right?

Photo by Ioana Cristiana on Unsplash
Photo by Ioana Cristiana on Unsplash

Well, maybe you’re not a data-driven casino mogul, but you are driven by data, at least indirectly.

And that can lead you to some psychopathic actions.

Here are three cases in which data―or more accurately the abstraction of data―can turn an average person into a psychopath.

In the last case, it can turn an average person into a mass murderer.

But let’s start small―with a single investment.

Case 1 — The Hedge Fund Investment

Most people don’t have the will, the energy or the aptitude to sift through mountains of numbers in the hopes of squeezing out another few dollars from the ether of society.

Dr. Rose-type people are exceptional in both fiction and in real life.

But someone who invests in a Dr. Rose-type person? That’s more common.

And someone who invests in someone who invests in a Dr. Rose-type person?

Photo by Roberto Junior on Unsplash
Photo by Roberto Junior on Unsplash

That’s common indeed, and it might even be you.

The act of doing this is called investing in a hedge fund, and at first glance, investing in a hedge fund is hardly a psychopathic act.

But it may be.

Hedge fund ledgers are a source of psychopathy

The hedge fund manager employs spreadsheets in the same way that Dr. Rose does, with both eyes on the bottom line.

Let’s say the hedge fund manager sees that investing in a company with the innocuous name Greenledge Holdings might turn the hedge fund’s annual return from 7.8% to 8.1%.

Greenledge Holdings is the hundredth company on the ledger, and you―the investor―don’t even notice it, let alone know what it does.

But Greenledge Holdings is a weapons manufacturer, and they are coming out with a highly profitable weapon―an inexpensive gun that will soon flood the black markets, and in turn prolong three civil wars in the third world.

Let’s consider the moral sentiment here―

You do not know what Greenledge Holdings does, let alone what the end result will be.

The hedge fund manager, and perhaps even the managers of Greenledge themselves don’t know the true end result―after all, the real effect of these guns came after they flooded the black market.

But most importantly you don’t see this, because the data is abstracted into a single message from your hedge fund manager―

We have improved our annual return from 7.8% to 8.1%

You might listen to that, and you might invest.

If the data hadn’t been abstracted, it would have been a different story. If the hedge fund manager’s message had been―

We will bring all of you to a third world village that is under siege by an external militia, and you will live there for one week while you and the villagers are deprived of food and clean water. You will be free to go after one week, but we will ask you to prolong this experience for the villagers, and in exchange you will get an extra .3% on your annual return.

You would say no to this, because you are not a psychopath, and respond to the unabstracted data of actual experience in a normal way.

But you did not receive the message in the form of unabstracted data. The data you received had been abstracted to―

We have improved our annual return from 7.8% to 8.1%

Even the most empathetic person in the world might listen to that, and might invest.

And you yourself are not a psychopath, but you invested in the hedge fund―

And this was a psychopathic act, albeit an indirect one.

Case 2a — You are on the streets of New York, and it’s mid-February, 1945

World War II has been dragging on for a while, and it has been a long few years for you and everyone you know.

Right now, you are looking for some good news.

You then buy a copy of the newspaper, and you get some good news indeed―

Altered image of a newspaper proclaiming that the Final Enemy Stronghold Falls

What do you do? You most likely cheer.

It’s completely understandable that you cheer, but doing so is a psychopathic act.

You cheer the headline because it has abstracted the data of an extremely deadly moment in history

In the above headline, the reader is given two, highly abstracted data points―

  • Final Enemy Stronghold Falls!
  • Minimal Allied Loss

And then the reader is also given a projection―

  • End of War in Sight

That’s great, right?

Let’s see how great it really is, by de-abstracting the data a bit.

Case 2b — You are in modern times, and you begin to de-abstract the data

It is modern times, with the benefit of hindsight, and you see that newspaper in a digital archive, and there are two MS Excel files and a third virtual reality file next to it.

You open the smallest Excel file first, and though it is just a single line, the data it contains is less abstracted than that in the initial newspaper―

Microsoft Excel image showing data from a past military action

You consider the number―25,000 civilians.

It’s a big number, though the rounded amount of 25,000 doesn’t seem that specific.

But still, you realize that these casualties were civilians, and you feel that there is something more here.

You open the second Excel file.

Case 2c — You de-abstract the data a bit further

The second Excel file holds a little more data, and the data is a bit less abstracted.

Microsoft Excel image showing more data from a past military action

You realize there is a lot of bad things that happened during this event, and then you open the last file in the archive.

Case 2d — You de-abstract the data quite a bit more, by experiencing what had happened

It’s a virtual reality file, and there is a virtual reality helmet next to your computer.

You put on the virtual reality helmet, press play, and it allows you to experience the bombing of Dresden firsthand.

Dresden — Photo credit goes to Walter Hahn — Library of Congress     Virtual Reality — Photo by Christine Sandu on Unsplash
Virtual reality could never captures the horrors of war — but it can probably capture more than a Spreadsheet — Dresden — Photo credit goes to Walter Hahn — Library of Congress Virtual Reality — Photo by Christine Sandu on Unsplash

Let’s assume that this virtual reality helmet is really good, and allows you to experience something close to what those in Dresden experienced.

The sights, the scents, the screams.

Assuming you’re not a psychopath, you should have a non-psychopathic response―

You say this is horrible.

You say this should not happen.

You say no war should happen, even if it means we win.

You get a dose of unabstracted data, and―your response is no longer psychopathic.

Abstraction of Data vs Empathy of Response — a Chart

Let’s put this all on a chart, and we will throw in the author Kurt Vonnegut, a highly empathetic individual who actually lived through the Dresden firebombing as an American P.O.W. .

A chart showing estimations of Abstraction of Data vs Empathy in response

When data is abstracted, the empathetic response is muted.

When data becomes less abstract, the empathetic response increases.

There’s a bit of hope in this graph―

Real experience tends to bring an empathetic response.

But abstract the data into a single headline, and anyone might give a psychopathic response.

in fact, 25,000 people could meet a fiery death in Dresden, and an entire nation across the ocean might―understandably, given the abstraction of data―cheer in response.

Case 3 — You signed up for a non-combat role, and now you are in a box in Las Vegas, killing strangers as if they were ants

Note―the case study below places little, if any blame on the people who actually pulled the trigger.

The ones at fault are primarily the politicians that voted for the wars, followed by us in society who voted for the politicians who voted for the wars, and a distant third―if that―is placed on the military members who volunteered to do what society asked/compelled them to do.

Abstraction of data by augmentation

Abstraction of data isn’t just limited to reducing the data points to an influential headline.

Sometimes the data can be magnified beyond all powers of human perception, but as long as the data is presented in the right context―an ordinarily empathetic human can effectively be turned into a serial killer.

The young men who were trained to step on ants

Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash
Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash

In 2015 four drone operators with over 15 years’ combined experience wrote an open letter to then-President Obama.

The letter spoke in broad themes―of the counter-effectiveness of the drone program, the unnecessary loss of civilian life, and ultimately a contribution to the net amount of terrorism in the world.

But when these drone operators were interviewed, they provided quite a few more details, many of which are terrifying.

They spoke of joining the military for often-innocuous reasons like having access to the GI Bill, and then deliberately signing into non-combat wings of the Air Force, like imagery intelligence.

Unfortunately, imagery intelligence meant drone operation, which was the new frontier of combat.

Hellfire missile on a Predator Drone — Public Domain photo from Wikimedia Commons
A Hellfire missile on a Predator Drone — Public Domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

One signatory of the letter expressed his reluctance to kill people to his commanding officer―and was told to shut up and do his job.

Another signatory expressed his reluctance to his military chaplain, who told him if he killed people with a drone, it was probably because God wanted them dead.

And then they did their duties―and were honorably discharged. They were all given sealed performance reviews, which included their total career kill counts.

Not all the signatories opened their reviews, but one did, and found that he had contributed to 1,626 killings.


He was around 26 years old at that time, and that was his quarter-life crisis.

The rest of us might experience the 26-year old angst of going down a wrong career or life path, or of being with an incompatible partner.

But this person―despite his reluctance and an overall bent towards religion and compassion―found that he had helped kill 1,626 human beings.

And again―this is not an indictment of these individuals―it just underlines how data, even augmented data, can turn anyone into a psychopath

This is not a condemnation of the aforementioned whistleblowers. The politicians should be condemned first, and those of us who voted for the politicians should be condemned second.

The troops―especially the whistleblowing troops above―are a not even a distant third in blame―they should not be blamed at all.

Politicians brought these wars, and politicians authorized and encouraged drone strikes.

The point here is that in this case, drone strike technology augmented certain parts of data and abstracted others, and that abstraction made it just a bit easier for an otherwise empathetic human to kill a stranger while they slept.

Ants on a screen

Explains one of the whistleblowers

Ever step on ants and never give it another thought? That’s what you are made to think of the targets — as just black blobs on a screen.

The whistleblower then recounts the mental gymnastics involved in continuing involvement with drone-flying, but at first―it’s just stepping on ants.

Unlike an unnoticed line on a hedge fund ledger or a headline, the drone operator sees more data than the average person, and not less.

They can see wind speed and heat maps, and they can see in the dark.

But of course, not all the data of real-life combat is there―you don’t hear the screams of the wounded, and don’t really see them as a normal person does.

And in a follow-up article, it’s explained that other members of the whistleblower’s team eventually did reach their limit.

Other members of his squadron had different reactions to their work. One sensor operator, whenever he made a kill, went home and chugged an entire bottle of whiskey. A female operator, after her first shot, refused to fire again even under the threat of court martial. Another pilot had nightmares after watching two headless bodies float down the Tigris. [The whistleblower] himself would have bizarre dreams where the characters from his favorite game, World of Warcraft, appeared in infrared.

But still, think of the number 1,626.

No normal situation can give a normal person a kill count of 1,626 without having them break down first.

But with the presentation of drone data, combined with the psychology of military training―it can happen.

So data can turn us into psychopaths―what does this mean?

First and foremost, it means that data alone cannot guide us to the right decisions.

Without the human element in our decisions, our decisions will be stripped of emotions, and that will lead us down bad paths.

So perhaps that is a line of defense against data-driven psychopathy―injecting the human element into every data-driven decision we make.

There’s an apocryphal story about military commanders going into the basement of the Pentagon in 1967, entering all the data of the Vietnam War, and asking the computer when the US would win. The computer processed the punch cards all weekend, and on Monday brought a result―You won in 1965.

Though this tale may not have happened, it effectively did. Then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara thought he could win with data alone, and that did not occur.

It took humans to end the Vietnam War―protestors, reporters, politicians, soldiers and military commanders.

Humanity, and a free press, are the key to preventing the psychopathy induced by data

Photo by the Climate Reality Project on Unsplash
Photo by the Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

What shed light on the actions of the drone program?

A free press, and some human whistleblowers.

What brought the truth of Dresden to come out?

A free press, survivors who told the tale, and of course―Kurt Vonnegut, the quintessential humanist.

What keeps you from investing in arms manufacturers that you don’t want to invest in?

A free press, and a few people looking out for such investments. Search engines like Weapon Free Funds allow you to do this quite easily, and though they employ databases―there are humans watching over the databases to ensure the accuracy of the results.

And we certainly need both a free press and the element of humanity―because things are going to get a bit more difficult in part 2 of this series.

We’ll be exploring algorithms, and that means our unfeeling data will be put through an unfeeling algorithmic process.

This is unfeeling multiplied by two, or perhaps even squared.

But like data, algorithms hold an incredible potential to enhance our lives. And like data, we also have a framework for handling the perils of algorithms.

So stay tuned.

This is Part 1 of a 3 Part series — The Perils and Promise of Data

Jonathan Maas has a few books on Amazon, and would love to hear from you. You can reach him through



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