24 days ago

As Shepherds Watched

Link: http://rvsoapbox.blogspot.com/2024/04/as-shepherds-watched.html

We can find a useful metaphor for data ethics in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Palantíri are indestructable stones or crystal balls that enable events to be seen from afar. They also allow communication between two stones. The word comes from Tolkein’s invented language Quenya – palan means far, tir means to watch over.

The stones are powerful but dangerously unreliable. Even in the hands of an evil wizard such as Sauron, the stones cannot present a completely false image, but they can conceal enough to mislead, and at one point in the story Sauron himself is deceived.

This links to my oft-repeated point about data and dashboards: along with the illusion that what the data tells you is true, there are two further illusions: that what the data tells you is important, and that what the data doesn’t tell you is not important. (See my eBook How To Do Things With Data.)

Joseph Pearce notes the parallel between palantíri and another device whose name also denotes watching from afar – television. “The palantir stones, the seeing stones employed by Sauron, the Dark Lord, to broadcast propaganda and sow the seeds of despair among his enemies, are uncannily similar in their mode of employment to the latest technology in mass communication media” Pearce p244.

The big data company Palantir Technologies was named after Tolkein’s stones. It has pitched itself as “providing the power to see the world, without becoming corrupted by that power” Maus. Not everyone is convinced.


Denis Campbell, NHS England gives key role in handling patient data to US spy tech firm Palantir (Guardian, 20 November 2023)

Maus Strategic Consulting, A (Pretty) Complete History of Palantir (27 April 2014)

Joseph Pearce, Catholic Literary Giants: A Field Guide to the Catholic Literary Landscape (Ignatius Press 2014)

Wikipedia: Palantír, Palantir Technologies