The Absurdity of ‘Big Data,’ Or: Numbed by Meaningless Numbers

Somewhere, at this very moment, several citizens are passengers on an emotional dive-bomber, rising and falling with disputatious claims, and pleas for calm and deliberation. With each precipitous drop, one or more of these strangers shakes a fist in rage.

Sequestered in a small room, with nothing more than a bagged lunch and writing paper, these individuals – a cross-section of incomes, jobs, races and religions – have the power, through their words alone, scribbled in staccato bursts of defiance (“No!”), euphoria (“Yes!”) and solemnity (“Maybe”), and filmed by an anonymous presence behind a two-way mirror, to render a verdict worth billions of dollars.

I give you the “jurors” of a typical focus group: Consumers with an interest in a particular product or service. These men and women are “qualitative gold,” in comparison to their “quantitative cousins”; they are flesh and blood creatures – some are loud and obscene, while others are quiet and contemplative – who possess information that is far more valuable than anything known as “Big Data.”

The latter is, despite the absence of a universally accepted definition of the term, a binary reduction of humanity into so many ones and zeroes. Our wants, interests, goals and ambitions, the conversion of a person's identity into an algorithm, the attempt to efface our consciousness into an equation – the ongoing effort to mine this material, and transform the complexity of humankind into a series of predictive “likes” and “follows” – is folly.

Instead, companies need a jury foreman.

They need someone who can easily segue from acting as a dispassionate referee, stopping a monologist's wholesale indictment of real and perceived wrongs, to being a group therapist filled with reassuring maxims of encouragement and understanding; to amplifying his voice like a bygone revivalist, spreading the Word like a stage actor with a hand toward the heavens and an arm (for recruitment) toward the assembled; to lowering his speech to a whisper, like a confidant with Top Secret intelligence; to seducing these men and women to reveal their secrets about a specific product or service.

Companies need Jeff Hirsch.

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Founder of The Right Brain Studio, Jeff is a living refutation to the modern-day obsession with the marketing equivalent of alchemy. I refer to the ascendance of the quack-as-quant, a data or computer scientist whose fluency in “the language the Internet talks” elicits reverence from the faithful and obedience from the uninitiated.

The difference between this false idol and all other would-be deities is this: In the past, where the once-mysterious became more meaningful because of its true meaning, where our ancient ancestors may have worshipped the red-green glow of the Northern Lights or, as the satirists of film would have an African tribesman kneel before a heavenly totem stamped with the Spencerian script of the high priests of Atlanta, Jeff knows we would sooner pay fealty to an empty bottle of Coca-Cola than columns of numbers – if we knew the truth about that (mostly) worthless data.

I would be remiss if I did not pause (for “The pause that refreshes,” as those priestly marketers would say), and mention two points of qualification.

One, I am not an employee of The Right Brain Studio. Nor do I work with any of the companies Jeff advises.

Secondly, too many companies ruin too many focus groups by hiring the wrong moderator. I will not waver in that assertion because, having inhaled the half-concealed air of contempt and anxiety of these corporate journeymen, a scent of fear that quickens the pulse and soaks the hands with sweat, I see the nephews and distant cousins of Willy Loman; their energy sapped and their enthusiasm gone, they are no longer out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. They look broken and beleaguered; they reek of desperation.

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In their stead comes some self-anointed expert carrying nothing but a slender device; his only product, numbers; his only pitch, the world. For the world is but one glorious line of code, to be “analyzed” by this prophet and inscribed on sacred tablets (from Apple and Google) containing the language, in a variation of an earlier comment (which is a variation on the following statement in its original form), that “God talks.”

That language, with its cryptic symbols and theoretical constructs, is holy to the believer, and sufficiently frightening to put the fear of God in almost all of us. That language is mathematics.

And every false prophet, by design or circumstance, knows that we will suspend our collective disbelief . . . to believe! After all, is not mathematics the truth? Would we dare question the complex models and computational accuracy of machines that can almost instantaneously predict the path of a hurricane, the outbreak of a virus and the trajectory of a nuclear missile?

The would-be prophet knows these queries are rhetorical exercises, which is why he benumbs us with numbers: Numbers we do not understand, based on formulas we cannot read, created by programs we cannot control. But, should we retain the services of such a figure, our problems will be solved, our anxieties assuaged, our success guaranteed.

Any hesitation you may hear comes from a voice accented by his upbringing in Far Rockaway, Queens. It is the voice of a street-smart safecracker, a bohemian (on the bongos) and a scourge of every peddler of pseudoscientific nonsense. It is the voice behind the announcement about the language of the divine.

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It is the voice of the late Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate and theoretical physicist.

That voice, preserved here in perpetuity, exposes the nakedness of Big Data.

The voice says:

“We get experts on everything that sound like they're sort of scientific experts. They're not scientific, they sit at a typewriter and they make something up . . . There's all kinds of myths and pseudoscience all over the place.”

Those myths circulate throughout the boardrooms of too many companies, where executives convene a séance – with the data demigod acting as a medium – to hear the fixed, rational answers from a species known, if nothing else, for its extremely irrational behavior; to wage war, and destroy completely; to love blindly, and live passionately; to achieve greatly, and suffer deeply.

In another room stand twelve angry men. Fueled by emotion, and hardened by prejudice, they thunder with fury and threaten one another by the force of their words.

Walking into that room, to find the truth, may leave you embittered and saddened.

To get these men to tell you the truth – to have them confess why they will or will not buy your product – requires extraordinary talent.

Jeff Hirsch walks into that room with confidence because he knows he will emerge from it with the truth.

And so he does, and so he shall.

Lewis Fein is an independent marketing and media relations consultant, based in Southern California. You may reach him at [email protected].

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