Opinion by Thornton May

Analytics and the state of knowing

Abetted by technology, our capacity to know is far outstripping what we actually know


For the past seven years, I have traveled around the world asking organizations what they know, what they don’t know, what they need to know and how they come to know. Answers in hand, I have set about examining the data in the context of business outcomes and mission accomplishment (in the case of not-for-profit enterprises). I have come to some broad conclusions about the general state of knowing in the world today. 

A paradox has emerged. Generally, our capacity to know (that is, what is knowable) is expanding exponentially, thanks to technology improvements (for example, affordable sensors and improved and accelerated analytics) and the apparently never-ending emergence of new sharing platforms (Facebook, YouTube, etc.). 

What we actually know, on the other hand, appears to be advancing linearly — when it advances at all. Thus, I respond to Nick Carr’s question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the negative. I maintain that Google isn’t making us stupid. It is the socio-technical ecosystem that is, relatively speaking, making us less smart (as measured by the variance between what we could know/what we need to know and what we actually know). 

Marketers know how to push your buttons

Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a respected researcher in the privacy arena, is concerned that much of society is unaware of how the data we share can be used to manipulate us — in what we buy and how we vote, for example.  

"We're not just revealing our likes and dislikes but also our psychological traits — cognitive biases that could be used to influence us. We're sharing the 'buttons' that others can use to push us in a certain direction."  

Acquisti asks his students to imagine the following scenario: It is relatively easy for any advertiser to learn who a targeted male consumer’s girlfriend is. Imagine that advertiser using a “morphed” version of that girlfriend as a product spokesperson. In the near future, claims the professor, advertisers will “no longer focus so much on matching products with consumers, but on using personal information to change the advertising message on the fly so it speaks directly to you.”  

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