We seek meaning in most any action, so we sometimes mislead ourselves. Even when shown circles, triangles and other geometric objects randomly moving about on a screen, we tend to give them human attributes. We instinctively determine what their behavior means. Such quick conclusions were sometimes life-saving to our ancient ancestors. "It was safer to mistake a twig for a snake than vice versa," suggests psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. Our primitive brain still controls much of our perceptions yet analytics may alter that instinct.
1. See Real Serendipitous Connections
We can overcome our natural tendency to make the world more knowable and secure by seeking patterns and coincidences where there are none Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger believe. In their new book, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, they describe how our increasing access to the results of Big Data processing, helps us overcome our quick instinct to falsely see correlation and causality, famously described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. As Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier explain, we can "step back from looking at causes and instead look at correlations. Consider the what rather than the why, because that is often good enough."
2. Know How Big Data Begets Better Decision Making
"Which paint color is most likely to tell you that a used car is in good shape?" is one of the intriguing questions cited in the book's promotion, along with these: "How can officials identify the most dangerous New York City manholes before they explode? And how did Google searches predict the spread of the H1N1 flu outbreak?"
As organizations begin processing bigger pools of "messy" data rather than small pools of "clean" data, they will gain more accurate insights about how to operate and we, as consumers, will get more accurate and complete information from which to make smarter choices.
Filtering messy amounts of big data will continue to be a popular kind of business service that will force sweeping changes in most all markets and professions. The authors cited one example that I quickly started using. Bradford Cross's Prismatic serves up a custom feed of the news and ideas that most reflects what I most frequently search for.
Just as every talent has a flip side, one downside of such life-enhancing filtering is what Eli Pariser dubbed a filter bubble in which we narrow our interests and thus sometimes miss the serendipitous connections that can pull unexpected insights and friendships into our lives. As well, as we increasingly hang out with people who have similar beliefs, we become more extreme and certain in those beliefs - not a good trend for a resilient, inclusive and economically strong culture. Consequently as we may grow "smarter" via access to big data-supported evidence we will need to consciously seek out disparate paths to "walk" online and in real life to also grow in wisdom.
3. Avoid Downsides of Driving Big Data
Yet as more organizations and people have access to big data and the value and variety of the results accelerates, one downside is increased disruption and stress, at the organizational and personal level, in attempting to keep up with the latest knowledge to make the smartest choices:
• Imagine that a huge number or people choose to be schooled as radiologists after discovering there was a desperate need for them, and that it was a high-paying profession that provided some time flexibility. Yet the flood of people into the profession enabled employers to drastically reduce those enticing opportunities. Trends may become big data-fueled whipsaws of human action and reaction.
• The authors also warn us of disastrous uses of power that could accrue to those who have the most dominant control of big data:
- Babies are custom designed for optimal success, attractiveness and other traits deemed most valuable
- People are put in prison for crimes they are highly likely to commit
- Inevitably, as more personal information is scraped from more places, less will actually be "de-anonymized." Expect more privacy invasions.
- Some individuals will become the 21st Century robber barons by spiraling up in their access to ever more data and processing power. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
4. Ride Bumpy Big Data Wave for the Greater Good & Adventure
As Moisés Naím wrote in Illicit: How Smugglers Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy, trafficking in humans, drugs and weapons is spreading faster than any other industry or profession. More than global corporations or countries, illegal production and trade groups have successfully adopted the much-advocated innovative practices of flattening, self-organizing, adapting and scaling. The situation is worsening at an ever faster rate as the illicit trades become early adopters of those famously touted "social" tools paired with big data -- most notably mobile, cloud, crowdsourcing and analytics.
This trend is a major factor in the Global Tilt and leads to two conclusions and a major choice for every organization and individual including you and me:
Why to Expect the Unexpected
1. Every innovation is becoming a Pandora's Box where we must expect the unexpected and we can't pretend we can control, for long, the unfolding events that will happen.
2. We are living in a world where good and bad behaviors can originate in more places, be adopted quicker, and spread faster farther. The Law of Unintended Consequences will become the rule, not the exception.
No action is neutral. You can consciously choose little bets on big data usage -- as a consumer and in your work -- to support the greater good or not. If you do not choose, you're wandering on the wrong side of neutral. If you do choose actions toward the greater good, then you are likely to bring out others' better side faster and accomplish greater things together that you couldn't even imagine in the pre-Big Data era, and wouldn't have found to possible.