Goosed by Data Gandering
Friday, January 22, 2010
In what seemed like a tribute to the cute little kid from Jerry Maguire who kept repeating "the human head weighs 8 lbs," Fast Company recently published a Mr. Egghead infographic that illustrated an astounding fact from the brainiacs at UC San Diego: the average American, on the average day, consumes 34 gigabytes of information. And from 1980-2008, bytes consumed increased 350%.
That eight pounds can sure pack a punch.
For the purposes of explaining the infographic, writer Maccabee Montandon uses information, content and data interchangeably to argue that Americans are ravenous for "data." But hold up -- do we want to gorge on data? I'm not sure I buy his conclusion about our appetite.
First, I don't classify the entire season of Curb Your Enthusiasm or a Beyonce video as data per se. Content that has been shaped through narrative devices has already been processed for human consumption.
Second, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism recently found that despite the plethora of news sources out there today, from which we apparently graze uncontrollably, 95% of what we consume is driven by traditional media -- read newspapers. In fact, eight of 10 stories studied simply repackage or repeat previously published information.
In practice, that feels true. Scroll the Twitter feeds of any number of news outlets on a given day. You will find the same story, tweet after tweet. The many voices act cohesively to bind the consuming public to a tight and uniform narrative -- despite the outward appearance of cacophony.
So this plate of 34 gigs doesn’t sound like data gorging to me. More like an overloaded buffet that includes some congealed repetitious echoes and time-killing content delicacies.
But at a table in the back of the dining hall, data production (whether it be from decoding the genome, website analytics or location based services) is undeniably exploding. And so does your head when you try to wrap your mind around the influx of metrics (as opposed to content and news/information) we are now just starting to have to swallow.
In fact, that influx is so great and unrelenting that I don't see Mr. Egghead when I think about it -- I see the 21st Century citizen as roughly akin to a goose in a foie gras factory, neck outstretched, force-fed a glut of hard-to-digest data.
The only escape: we must try to make sense of it all.
Recently, Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management wrote on the Harvard Business Review blog "Why Good Spreadsheets make Bad Strategies." Numbers can be nutrient deficient. Martin speaks of the differences between "quantities" and "qualities":
"Why are qualities so important? We need to understand the role of qualities in dealing with the complex, ambiguous and uncertain world in which we live because understanding, measuring, modeling and manipulating the quantities just won't cut it. Adding up the quantity of credit outstanding won't tell us nearly enough about what role it will play in our economy. Adding up sales won't tell us what kind of a company we really have. We need to have a much deeper understanding of their qualities — the ambiguous, hard-to-measure aspects of all of these features."
Those qualities provide context and translation. As a culture we are now struggling with balancing left and right brain approaches to find patterns and get to truth -- or at least find paths forward.
As more and more news is simply packaged and commodified, we turn to the data to get closer to the truth -- and instead get hit with the full, uncontextualized force of the feeding tube.
For developers and brands this means opportunity -- the opportunity to help metabolize the data diet. If you don’t remember your 7th grade science, metabolism is defined as the process by which energy is provided for vital processes and activities and new material is assimilated.
Organizations that create tools to navigate the data terrain provide real value to overloaded consumers. Organizations that sift through numbers to get to an understanding (vs. just measurement) of systems work more efficiently. Organizations which ask not just “how many?,” but “why?” and “how?” start putting data into context and create dialogue.
Can your organization help us avoid a foie gras fate?