Too-Big Data? That don’t impress me much

On a whim, I spent the evening in Edinburgh at a meetup presentation/meeting concerning Big Data, the talk given by a “Big Data hero” (IBM’s term), employed by a huge multinational corporation with a lot of fingers in a lot of pies (including the UK Welfare system).

I think I was supposed to be awed by the scale of data under discussion, but mostly what I heard was all immodest massive business-speak and buzzwords and acronyms. A few scattered examples to claim “we did that”, “look at the size of our supercomputer”, but the only technical word he uttered all evening was “Hadoop”.

In the absence of a clear directed message, I’ve come away with my own thoughts instead.

So the idea of Big Data is altogether a source of disappointment and concern.

There seems to be a discrepancy: on the one hand, one’s fitbit and phone are rich sources of data; the thought of analyzing it all thoroughly sets my data-geek senses twitching in excitement. However, the Internet of Things experience relies on huge companies doing the analysis – outsourced to the cloud – which forms a disjoint as they proceed to do inter-company business based on one’s personal data (read: sell it, however aggregated it might be – the presenter this evening scoffed at the idea of “anonymized”), above one’s head and outwith one’s control. The power flows upwards.

To people such as this evening’s speaker, privacy and ethics are just more buzzwords to bolt on to a “data value pipeline” to tout the profit optimizations of “data-driven companies”. So are the terms data, information, knowledge and even wisdom.

But I think he’s lost direction in the process. We’ve come a long way from sitting on the sofa making choices how to spend the evening pushing buttons on the mobile.

And that is where I break contact with The Matrix.

I believe in appreciating the value of little things. In people, humanity and compassion more than companies. In substance. In the genuine kind of Quality sought by Pirsig, not as “defined” by ISO code 9000. Value may arise from people taking care in their craft: one might put a price on a carved wooden bowl in order to sell it, but the brain that contains the skill required to make it is precious beyond the scope of the dollar.

Data is data and insights are a way to lead to knowledge, but real wisdom is not just knowing how to guide analysis – it’s understanding that human intervention is sometimes required, and knowing when to deploy it, awareness, critical thinking to see and choose.

The story goes that a salesman once approached a pianist, offering a new keyboard “with eight nuances”. The response came back: “but my playing requires nine”.