Sunday, November 18, 2012

Big Data, Small Imagination

When I wrote my novel, Coup d'Twelve, in the Spring of 2011 the idea that a project with the code name "ORCA" would show up in the U.S. elections during November 2012 in reality and in my fiction would seem to be a rather creepy coincidence. In my novel, ORCA was a system that was used to coordinate massive financial data transmission resulting in unfathomable wealth transfer. In Mitt Romney's failed Presidential election bid, ORCA was a poll and voter watcher that was supposed to coordinate massive data which would have resulted in unfathomable wealth transfer. My personal favorite association of the giant sea mammal and data is the Hamamatsu CCD camera used to photograph cosmic rays… but I digress.

Reviewing the patchwork of contracts that are disclosed in Federal Election Commission filings, Targeted Victory appears to be one of the architects of ORCA and, quite to their chagrin, their name seems to have delivered Defeat to clients Mitt Romney, Floridian Connie Mack, Virginian George Allen, Massachusetts' own Scott Brown, and Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson. Their concoction of text messaging, social media blizzarding, keyword optimization and the like looked more like a penguin diving into the yawning jaws of a hungry sea lion than the silent lord of the deep. Targeted Victory did a nice job of lining their own pockets with campaign cash but, beyond that, they delivered a forgettable performance. The obsession with watery names persisting, Rockfish Interactive also siphoned some of the campaigns' sea lettuce with their "be the first to know" digital campaign apps. Together with MindShift Techonologies (run by former COLT Telecom Group's management team) and SCM Associates (established by Stephen C. Meyers in 1991), it appears that the one thing that the campaign can reasonably be expected to produce is generous donations to Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Why? Because more Babson alum were at the Republican trough slurping up campaign cash than many if not any other school. U.S. News & World Report gave Babson high marks for entrepreneurship education and they did the French word proud. Their alum stashed the cash while presiding over a national big top circus. Well done! Probably a good idea not to overplay the Technology, Operation, and Information Management degree as the tech side of the story is not quite so rosy.

Why did Romney's whale beach? In part because of the same arrogance promoted by IBM's pronouncement that "90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone." Daily dozen terabytes of tweets, 500 million phone call records, billions of pictures, videos, and documents - how couldn't they be right? Well, the answer is digital. No, really, I mean digital. Romney's campaign and IBM both think that the only thing worth counting is discrete variables: yes or no; black or white; on or off; red or blue. Complexity (like two or more dimensions) is the enemy of this illusory world. It's best if we ignore the fact that the world we inhabit and the cosmic expanse through which we travel are analog with continuous flux. When you over-attribute confidence to one-dimensional perspectives framed in digital reality, you lose. And when it's done at scale, we all lose.

So… after Mitt and Paul were sent packing in favor of Four More Years, pundits, still trapped in digital flatland decided to blame ORCA - the killer app that, well, wasn't so killer after all. Oh, and in the interest of fair-and-balanced, Charles Pruitt's A.B. Data Group (armed with a lot more money), delivered what WPP's advertising heft couldn't lift - a win for their candidate. Macalester College in Minnesota better be getting a bump in their endowment too! And by the way; good on ya' Macalester (Pruitt's alma mater)! I think that your college website is the only one that promotes Sauropod expeditions and anybody cool enough to have 65 million year old fossils on a website gets cool points in my book!

But the other reason why Romney's sea creature was more blubber than sinew was the failure of imagination. When one seeks to understand a complexity - like emotional human behavior - it's pretty important to start with complexity. Race, gender, socio-economic status, and the like are blunt instruments. With them, you might remove the overburden of mud to unveil the site of dinosaur bones but you'll never get into the granular details with digital classifiers. What's the difference, for example, between fossil and the surrounding dirt and gravel? Well, in truth, probably a few million years. The fossil is just earth dust with its geometry preserved. And that's where Romney, IBM and all the "big data" evangelists miss the point. They forget that signals (both digital and analog) are produced in words, pictures, embraces, dances, emotions, reflexes and mediation all the time and they emanate from impulses in context. Any attempt to decipher one without the other - to say nothing of the greater harm in concluding that one is of greater or lesser importance - is madness.

When Herman Hupfeld wrote "As Time Goes By" in 1931 (sung unforgettably by Louis Armstrong), he wasn’t expecting a literal interpretation of "A kiss is just a kiss." Tell this line to Jesus of Nazareth the night he was kissed by Judas. Tell this to your bride at the consummation of nuptials. Tell this to your son or daughter the first time they plant a slobber-filled smooch on your cheek. You see, when you take words out of context, you can fill in a thousand contexts in which they don't apply and then you can form an argument with one of the more romantic, lilting songs from the 30's. The impulse in context is not a "big data" challenge - it's actually something that neither Romney nor IBM can wrap their head around. It's an invitation to realize that by pretending to communicate signals through "social media", we've actually constricted the dynamic range of our communication. And in so doing, we've shrunk the complexity of context thereby generating more meaningless signal devoid of humanity.

Here's a simple way to confound the social spiders crawling every signal to infer meaning from your every move. Don't feed them. If you like this blog post, after you've shared it on your Facebook page, Tweeted it to your friends, and "Liked" it as many times as you can, think of someone you really love and actually READ it to them. You know, that good old-fashioned concept of actually letting your voice resonate with the poetic magic of words. When you do this, do me the favor of imagining me sitting with you and smiling. Imagine that we're starting a conversation that will last long into the night in front of the hearth or to the relentless crashing of the waves on a beach. And then choose to tell your version of this story to others. In so doing, you'll reconnect with a bit of your humanity and enter the realm of cosmic data - a realm too big for campaigns and computers. A realm through which a silent ocean mammal slides quietly waiting for the migration of the perpetually moving seas.


  1. Great post David. Simple yet elegantly stated. We often forget how many different signals we use to interpret the world because we constantly forget our humanity. Thank you for the reminder.

    -Meredith W.

  2. Dear David:
    In former posts I got it as flashes but, more and more, I am seeing with clarity the pattern and meaning of what you want to communicate: that underneath all the complexity of what you write about, finances, accounting,politics... lies the simplicity of just being human,and the interactions and relationships with other fellow human beings, with all its complexity! Something, as the former comment says we forget. Maybe I get it wrong but it is what your writing inspire me. Of course this is just a simple statement but pointing out to one thing: that the depth of being human is bottomless, vibrating with limitless possibilities of thinking and action. I hope that this make sense!
    As usual, thank you for your post.
    Warm regards.

  3. Dear Angel,

    If in my millions of words and thousands of metaphors you get this cosmic center of mass, I honor you! Thank you for bringing it HOME! Yes, value (no matter how we define it) is only expressed in its exchange and its appreciation. This is ESSENTIALLY HUMAN!



Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave