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Smooth, amusing, and things to be learned too

Smooth, amusing, and things to be learned too

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

MAASTRICHT. An education prize, a dissertation prize, a series of student prizes for master’s theses, a couple of honorary doctorates, as well as the speeches and the music that are all part and parcel of the anniversary celebrations: the programme was overloaded, but last Friday's session in the St. Janskerk ran more smoothly than ever before. And there were things to be learned too.

The university's anniversary theme this year was ‘The future of a data-driven society.’ Rector Rianne Letschert, the pivot of this afternoon, confessed that she was a digital layman, not a digital native. “You should have appointed a younger rector!” Letschert, 41 years old, is the youngest rector that the UM has ever had. One message jumped out, or two actually. The first was that Maastricht University is doing everything not to miss the boat on digitalisation. A data institute is being set up; the director, Michel Dumontier, gave one of the two anniversary lectures. Digitalisation also plays a part in education, such as in the attempts to modernise the Problem-based Education model. But the second message was perhaps even more important: Don't bank on technology showing us the way. Where innovations are concerned, Letschert said, a mere 25 per cent concerns technology, three quarters depends on social factors. That message came through even louder in the two anniversary lectures, the first by Dumontier, and the second by historian Sally Wyatt.

Dumontier, professor and director of the new data science institute, outlined the near future, part of which is already reality. In this future, consumers will be constantly monitored and masses of data about them are being accumulated. Or take medicine, where more and more patient information leads to all kinds of new applications. Or the development of artificial intelligence, which is threatening to make even highly qualified personnel redundant. Bank directors could be such a category. “And will we at the university also become superfluous?” Dumontier wondered. “We need to think about how we will manage all of this.”

Sally Wyatt completely agreed. In what was at times a very amusing line of reasoning, she criticised a number of ‘myths’ that all more or less come down to the same: big data is the answer to almost every research question. Will everything become easier? Forget it, Wyatt says. Data has to be created, stored, analysed. Data may literally mean ‘things given’, but nothing could be less true. Science has to work very hard to produce it and even harder to give it significance, to interpret it. As far as the latter is concerned, hard science could learn something from the critical methods with which historians approach their sources. Who created the data, who designed the instrument for the analysis, was it developed with a particular purpose? Wyatt ended with a variation on a famous sentence by the British poet T.S. Eliot: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in data?”

What else did the afternoon bring? Apart from the fact that the rector skilfully kept momentum in the proceedings. There was a new but - according to insiders actually an old – phenomenon, which was that attendees in the hall were expected to stand during the presentation of the honorary doctorates. Unfortunately, the screens that were supposed to have enabled everyone in the church to follow the celebrations properly, more or less turned black at that particular moment. Making the award ceremony invisible for most.

And lastly, the guitar duo A liquid Landscape from Groningen (!), taking care of the musical intermezzi, played out of this world. Only the compulsory last song, Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude, was a bit of a problem for them. Their uniquely “own version,” as Letschert formulated it, would most likely have rendered even the composer dumbfounded. Utterly unrecognisable.

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