This linked post has been doing the rounds recently and there seems to be near-unanimous acceptance of its central message. Clever use of Big Data got Trump into the White House.
While the article is a bit scary and it does make you want to unplug yourself from the Internet grid, I think a bit of healthy scepticism is called for. In whose interest is it to claim that Big Data can be utilised to control any outcome at all? It’s a growing industry and the phrase Big Data currently makes ears prick up at Board Rooms across the world. There’s money to be made – and the way to do it is terrifyingly simple.
If you are in any data mining organisation at all – no matter what level you operate – you can truthfully bask in the glow of acclaimed Big Data success stories. In other industries you have to prove what *you* personally do or have done is tremendous enough to get business. However, Big Data is an industry which people barely understand and if you get the ear of a corporate decision maker, you can make claims that sound amazing – even if you had nothing to do with any of it.
Consider the fictitious case of Eric – a 25 year old average ability non-league footballer that looks a bit like Lionel Messi. Eric shows footage of Messi doing amazing things for Barcelona and then by strong implication promises a third tier football club chairman similar outcomes in return tor large amounts of money. The Chairman, hopelessly bewildered by the modern world of football, hires Eric. The manager and staff face palm themselves sore when they hear the news and Eric is announced as their new expensive megastar player. The Chairlman is the boss and has bought into all of this, so the operating staff have to go along with it.
The narrative of the linked article also makes me a sceptic. A scene is set as in a novel and the expertise of the main character paints a picture of someone who is part of a very smart, efficient machine that is controlling things. We tend to like stories, so a mild-mannered data analyst can easily be cast as Superman. The other unifying element of such stories is the anxiety that it’s already too late. By the time you read this…you’ll be DEAD. All that’s required is the next line – “unless you pay me to make all this work for you”.
At the Cambridge Analytical level, I am sure that the finest minds are algorithming their way to millions and we should be respectful and wary. Yet strategic decision makers at even very large companies are horrendously out of touch. The business approach is – if you can’t be bothered to learn, just outsource to someone who seems to be saying the right things. It shows the shareholders that you are Doing Something.
There is also a scary underlying theme here that Trump is a genius on the quiet, who hitched his wagon to big data early on, knowing its impact. Poink! That’s the sound of my eyebrow being a-raised so high that it hit the light fitting.
I’m not scared. I think the big data claims are overstated and in a few years, we’ll chuckle. Having said, I’m such a great, big-hearted all-round guy that I can and do change my mind on things – if there is a convincing reason to do so. A meringue?