“The Index of Self-Destructive Acts” is about the tension between humanity and raw data

“The Index of Self-Destructive Acts” is about the tension between humanity and raw data

Back at Stanford, we had this split in the student body between “fuzzies” who studied the liberal arts, and the “techies” who studied, well, tech. Back when I attended a decade ago, there was a bit more balance between those two groups, although recent enrollment data shows that Stanford students are aggressively moving to the more technical disciplines (as an interesting aside, international relations has taken the biggest relative loss by far over recent years).

That tension between Stanford students is really a core fight in our modern, computational big data world. Humans and their societies are complex, diverse, particular, challenging, and dynamic. Approach that tapestry from a statistical lens though, and you reduce down all of those complications to a handful of comparable metrics. That’s the quandary explored in social science works like James Scott’s Seeing Like A State and Alain Desrosières’ The Politics of Large Numbers. Do you see humans? Or do you see numbers? How do we reconcile these two approaches with each other, particularly as the scale of our civilization continues to grow ever larger?

Christopher Beha, who is the editor of Harper’s Magazine, explores this conflict in a character-driven drama entitled The Index of Self-Destructive Acts. The title refers to a statistic developed by the sabermetrics founder Bill James (the academic theorist behind what became "moneyball"), which tries to encapsulate all the mistakes and idiocies a baseball player can make while playing. Beha asks a simple question: given all the data we have in the world and all the knowledge we have learned, why do humans keep making the same mistakes over and over again?

The key foil (and there are many foils in this novel) is between Frank Doyle, a former long-time baseball and politics newspaper columnist who was forcibly retired after broadcasting a racist remark, and Sam Waxworth, an up-and-coming data journalist (a thinly fictionalized Nate Silver) who is sent to profile Doyle for a thinly-veiled New Republic magazine called Interviewer. The two represent the old and new approaches to knowledge, journalism, and criticism, and their worlds collide in a myriad of intricate ways.

Frank sees the world deeply. As a baseball columnist, he wants you to smell the grass (the title of one of his books is literally The Smell of the Grass), hear the sounds of a bat hitting a baseball, feel the tension of the key moments of the game. Baseball is a slow and methodical sport, and that slowness actually can heighten our senses, since we can actually take the time to witness the sublime moments when they finally transpire.

In contrast, Sam comes from the modern publishing world. He’s churning out columns, pushing every vagary of statistical angle to keep his work fresh, and doesn’t really care about the details and conclusions at all. Baseball is a game of statistics, not a game to really view or enjoy. It’s not about the expression on a player’s face, but about how that player’s numbers aggregate across a season and across a career. Sam’s work is to evade the irrationality of Frank’s observations. Where Frank sees a winning streak, Sam sees a statistical artifact in line with the law of large numbers. The irony of course is Sam gets assigned to profile a person who is basically unquantifiable — Frank with all his unique mannerisms and thoughts doesn’t fit into neat categories.

The question the novel poses is a very interesting one, and one that is under-explored in fiction. What is nuance? What’s the legitimacy of qualitative versus quantitative details? Maybe because so few writers have statistical training, this is a difficult frame for many to explore, but it’s so key to our daily life today that it deserves further illumination, particularly from the fictional lens.

Beha to his credit balances these perspectives across the book. I sort of expected a New York writer writing about New York writers and who professionally edits New York writers to ultimately come to the banal conclusion that New York writers have a lot to say, and all these quant folks can basically go shove it. He never really does that though, instead showing that the quants’ foibles — their self-destructive acts — are really not all that different from the liberal arts grads they’re replacing. There are no limits to irrationality. Indeed, there is an existential dread that colors the entire novel right from the beginning — all of our characters are doomed to their own self-destructive acts, and we are simply a witness to their inevitable downfalls.

Nihilism pervades the book. Whether you want to focus on the smell of the grass and all the particulars or whether you want to aggregate pitching stats, it doesn’t really matter much at all anyway. Audiences read, and then they throw all that reading away. No one remembers the columns Frank wrote, or the blog posts that Sam publishes. Maybe it elicits a feeling in the moment, but that moment is fleeting. Both men ultimately come to the realization that their grand ambitions were nothing but illusions, and barring a generational difference in the career paths of journalists, both are on the outside looking in on what’s happening around them.

Frank looking back at his career:

There was nothing shameful about watching. You needed observers to make meaning, which was Frank’s stock-in-trade. The sense of the world must lie outside the world. If no one wrote it down, it was gone the moment it happened. Words were the only way to pin things into place, to stop the flow of time. But time itself had to be spent on them, and life was wasted in a chair. One wanted to be a man of action and a man of contemplation both, to live the story and to tell it at once, to look up at the Jumbotron and see one’s own face staring back. If only you could know it was all written in the book, that you didn’t need to take it down yourself. If only there was a recording angel. But there was not. Nothing would be returned to us in the fullness of time, because time had no fullness. It was a constant emptying.

What does it mean to be an observer? Frank and Sam aren’t bystanders, in the way that the main character of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is (a truly great film if you haven’t seen it). They actually do live these events. They analyze their passions using their own frameworks and perspectives, but they are still just observing what is transpiring. Whether you describe the smells of the field or the derivatives of the baseball scores over time, neither can actually explain precisely what is going on in the heads of these players. Neither plays the game. In this way, Frank and Sam aren’t actually all that different, since they ultimately have the same perspective: that of the outsider. They are foils to each other, but only to a point.

I enjoyed the book, and the book was more emotionally visceral for me since Sam at least is remarkably close to my own career if not in his far more interesting scandals. That said, the book’s philosophizing is surprisingly lightweight compared to the descriptions of some of the early reviews I read. And when it comes to “jargon” — it’s absolutely insane that the few statistical phrases used in the book (“the central limit theorem”) would turn a single reader away. There is quite literally no technical material in this book whatsoever, and it is absolutely astounding that some readers were almost turned away from reading.

It’s a well-crafted novel, with absorbing characters that work as a cross-section of modern New York City upper-class life. The frame is interesting if not deeply explored, and overall, I thought the book worthwhile.