Opinion by Thornton May

Analytics and the state of knowing

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

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Opinion by Thornton May

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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.”  

We are not so very far away from a time when MRI scans will be able to determine whether we are lying. In the future, we will be knowable.  

Economists don’t know about the economy?

H.L. Mencken, a scathing social commentator of the early 20th century, once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” In the same spirit, I would say this: “It is hard to understate the financial illiteracy of the general public.”  

During the financial downturn, books and articles detailing the Great Recession became a literary genre. Just because there was a lot of ink does not mean there was a lot of understanding. Larry Elliot, economics editor at The Guardian, eloquently summed up the financial literacy issue in 2012, writing that the “masters of the universe” (a.k.a. the investment bankers) “had their own esoteric language … the equivalent of 12th century monks writing bibles in medieval Latin for peasants who only spoke English.”

The fact that most Main Streeters do not understand most Wall Streeters is not news. What is news — and relatively unremarked upon — is that in 2009, when the finest minds in America were debating an $800 million stimulus bill designed to ameliorate the impacts of the Great Recession, four economic Nobel laureates (James Buchanan, Edward Prescott, Vernon Smith and Gary Becker) argued that such stimulus would not improve economic performance. Two economic Nobel laureates (Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz) argued that the stimulus would improve economic performance and should be increased. What surprised me was not that the experts were not in agreement. It was that we wouldn’t know after the fact which economists were right. This is because, despite all the advanced analytics at our fingertips today, we still have no reliable way to measure counterfactuals — to know what would have happened had we not done something. Jim Manzi, former CEO at Lotus and a McKinsey consultant, argues that “our scientific ignorance of the human condition remains profound.” I concur, at least as it pertains to the functioning of our macroeconomy. 

I imagine that, if they truly want to reduce the gap between what can be known/must be known and what actually is known, business and not-for-profit executives alike will begin to develop a competency in the scientific method, defined by the Oxford English Dictionaryas “consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” 

Time to get those lab coats on.

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at thornton@thorntonamay.com.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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