It was the cruel and seemingly senseless killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, and the accumulation of lives taken before his, that finally jarred most Americans to search their souls and many to take to the streets in outrage. Inequities and criminal persecutions have gone on for decades, even centuries in the historical lynching and persecution of “others” in our society. Horrific as that is, one must wonder, what has changed? What awakened the conscience of America?
What if no one had captured video of the murder in Minneapolis? What if it was not shared on the news channels, newspapers and social media? But there was video, and the video was played again and again to hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people worldwide. In this case, the video was clear and obvious. It became the “truth” to the world. And that truth could not be diluted by any subterfuge of an excuse. It was the truth, and very plain to see with our own eyes.
As we move forward, there will certainly be more cases of wrongs against people because of race, gender, preference or simply otherness. But, increasingly, video will be there. In cellphones of witnesses and video security monitors placed around the world, eyes will be upon us all. Though privacy is being lost day by day by the proliferation of video, the nearly ubiquitous presence of video shines a virtual light on the mundane day-to-day activities, but also on the bigotry and crimes that are committed.
The time of truth telling, backed by video, has arrived to ensure our standards of justice and equity. And it is not just video technology. Big data have a role in telling the story. Through the gathering and analysis of big data, the truth is being exposed every day. Recently, the World Economic Forum published five graphs and charts that clearly show areas of disparity among racial groups in America. Most notably for those reading this, they show the wide educational gaps among white, Hispanic and black Americans. The data also show the disparity in earnings, unemployment, health care, life expectancy and imprisonment. These credible data are the undeniable truth. They are evidence of our shortcomings as a society.
The technologies of big data gathering, analysis and visualization have arrived. Much in the same way that video has been used to illuminate social injustice and crimes, big data enable us to closely examine equity and fairness. The big data results are undeniable as video. They can show the underlying trends that reveal success and shortcomings in our society.
Even with these technologies, we must still be vigilant. Facebook recently released a database of 100,000 deep-fake video clips showing altered videos that make people appear to say things that they did not.
Just as videos can be doctored to show things that didn’t happen, so too can statistics be manipulated. After all, it was Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) who more than a century ago famously claimed, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” However, if we are very careful to validate sources and methods of both videos and big data, we will arrive at the truth. The truth is there to see if we are prepared to search vigilantly and to verify.
And the truth delivered by technology can set us free. That is our hope for tomorrow: that increasingly truth will be collected, verified and disseminated through technology. That truth will lead to greater justice, more freedom and better lives for all.
These skills are key to the success of our students in their careers as well as their personal lives. In the 21st century, it is also an important responsibility for those of us teaching in all disciplines in higher education to address these skills in our students. It is incumbent on us to assure that our graduates are prepared to critically assess the veracity of information, including photos and videos.
What are you doing to teach our students about validating news sources and scrutinizing data? Is there a program at your university to assure that these skills are developed in students across the institution? Who is responsible for this important task?