The following is a guest series by Brendan Howley. Brendan is a Canadian investigative data journalist/collective intelligence specialist; he is at present co-authoring a book with Gunther Sonnenfeld and Sasha Grujicic, designed by Sarah Doody, on the global revolution in storytelling and its effect on brands, businesses and markets.
This is the third and final installment in the series.
the big pivot – part 3
from Brown University’s The Day of Data 2012
Today, data plays an increasing role in making decisions, enabling discoveries and guiding the innovation needed to address challenges facing our world, such as climate change, energy and security, cures for cancer and poverty.
We’ve created all these new technologies and generated all this data, but we forgot the significance of the human role in data.
Who will tell its story?
What if we were able to take the quantified use of metadata, a computing-based narrative of humanity, and integrate it with centuries of human narrative and storytelling? That would provide a tremendous opportunity to understand humanity at a level that’s never been understood before..
Thanassis Rikakis / vice provost for design, arts and technology Carnegie Mellon University
the peril of belief
Talk about a train-wreck.
It’s now a full-blown meme: the cognitive dissonance of the Republicans and their polling experts during the recent US presidential election.
How did the Republicans so completely lose the connection between real data evidence (‘we’re going to lose all the ‘battleground states’ ’) and their own beliefs Mitt Romney was a shoo-in in a ‘close election’? Here’s what they thought would happen: Romney would win with 275 electoral college votes:
They weren’t even close: Romney won but 206. Why, in short, did the Republicans persist in telling themselves a story ungrounded in reality?
Why, given the power of context to establish credibility and coherence when we weigh a given story for value (Hurricane Sandy survivor: ‘does Occupy really care about me?’ Or: ‘Why’s Procter&Gamble sending me web comedy episodes?’), why the astonishing meltdown?
Here’s a theory.
We as human beings tell ourselves stories that bear no relation to any evidence or available data—and we do this all the time. ‘I have to eat the third muffin. It’ll go to waste otherwise.’ Or: ‘That shampoo makes my hair look much thicker.’ Or: ‘I don’t trust X. He’s too tall.’
Which suggests there’s a clear reason for the Republicans’ choice. And it (emphatically) is not because the minds who subscribed to this non-evidence-based worldview are stupid, inferior or crazy. No: they’re some of the sharpest people on the planet in other respects.
But their brains, just like yours and mine, are hard-wired to resist change.
Why? One single harsh word: survival.
The survival instinct is the root cause of irrational belief.
‘the lizard brain’
Our brain’s primary purpose is to keep us alive. Survival comes first, last and every time. That’s why we have comas: the brain selects those behavioral responses to trauma which preserve life, not consciousness.
It’s why we resist dieting: the brain sees a change in present, habituatd diet as a threat to continued food supply and thus survival. This is equally true of addiction to fats, nicotine or heroin: any reduction of the habituated substance is a threat. (http://www.csicop.org/si/show/why_bad_beliefs_dont_die/)
Here’s the storytelling analogue to the brain function model, from the US presidential election 2012.
The Republicans listened preferentially to their groupthink/‘lizard brain,’ an indiscipline born of the fault lines in their ideology.
What was outside the core belief system equalled ‘threat.’
‘It must be true because it fits with my view of external threats,’ ignoring, amongst other realities
- the rise, not fall, of youth and Latino votes for Obama
- the fall, not rise of Romney base white male vote count and
- the rise, not collapse of women’s votes for Obama, for reasons stimulated by the Republicans’ out-of-step thinking about women’s issues
This belief system explains Karl Rove’s singular reaction when ‘his’ network, FoxNews, called the state of Ohio for President Obama: utter disbelief.
Rove and nearly the entire Romney polling/voter insight team were proceeding from false assumptions, imbued with their sense of being besieged by Obama’s policies and their consistent, wilfully blind reaction to the available data.
Sidebar: if I had a nickel for every Republican friend who predicted imminent armageddon because of Obama’s re-election—a ‘survival response’ if ever there was one—I’d be well on my way to a free order of Buffalo wings and a Creemore lager at my local pub. (Where I believe I’ll have a beer. Now that’s a belief consistent with reality.)
belief as self-storytelling
Beliefs are the stories we tell ourselves to navigate the new.
We all know the feeling of not being about to find our car in the airport parking garage: we believe we left it in C-4-Yellow. That’s the map back, the story we save, to tell ourselves, to find the car.
But there’s an emergent aspect to this internal storytelling as well: a story’s predictive power.
Imagine you’re an air traffic controller.
Your present reality is the sum-total of all aircraft on your screen. But there’s an emergent reality which you cannot yet see. But you know it’s there—it’s your job to know it’s there.
That reality’s the incoming aircraft not yet on your screen, the approaching flights which mean change to the present reality.
That’s the emergent story: it’s there even if you can’t yet see it.
A bodily example. Imagine a lemon being squeezed and then its juice in your mouth, on your tongue.
You’ll salivate. The ‘lemon-juice reality’ isn’t there, but your brain knows the story of lemon juice-ness: it’s heard that story before.
That ‘lemon juice-ness’ is enough to change physiology.
The Republicans refused to see the election’s emergent reality. The Democrats had a near-genius data software toolkit to monitor the election’s emergent reality (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/11/when-the-nerds-go-marching-in/265325/2/?single_page=true).
The rest is history.
context and the breakpoint
Now to the root of it: context is the relationship between story and story.
It’s a temporal and spatial relationship, of course. Story changes as it moves through time and in relation to both its audience and other stories.
But there’s something far more profound going on on the web right now than simply the movement of stories amongst us—not that that’s not profound enough, given the internet’s phenomenal potential to share story and to enable mass participation in that sharing.
In conversation with Gunther and Sasha and other colleagues, including storytelling-as-game ecosystem guy John Kellden in Sweden, I’ve advanced a new theory: internet dataflows are changing not simply media but the very fabric of story and the evolution of language itself.
This is the breakpoint.
It’s the no-turning-back, for-better-or-for-worse transition from a linguistic form (and thus a language of patterns) whose attributes were first named by Aristotle and recast by the American logician (and unsung genius) Charles Sanders Peirce in 1903 and refined by Noam Chomsky: that units of language are no longer simply binary—signified/signifier or substance/form.
Peirce added metaphor, the ‘interpretant’ attribute, the relationship of a word to itself, which yielded the first notion of a computational logic around language, decades before Alan Turing’s conception of a programming language—and the first notion of context.
A word is at once a sign and a unit of information and a metaphor which infers the word’s quality.
We ‘read’ the word ‘blue’ (a series of letter symbols comprising the word) and it evokes meanings about ‘blueness’ (that which is signified: archetypes or categories of blueness); we understand ‘blueness’ (according to Peirce) as a quality to be inferred from relationship of ‘blue’ to the meaning of blue.
But now there’s another attribute to language.
Big data and pattern language
Just as quantum physicists no longer particularize the nature of the identity of matter—they’re far deeper into ‘solid matter’ as the basis of physical reality, well beyond ‘atomism’—data scientists no longer see concrete data-objects but rather ecosystems of data relationships.
They’re moving towards holism, the notion that data exists not as abstract numbers but rather lives in inter-relationship with human systems—in a human context, in short.
And so in language.
Metadata is now rapidly, operationally becoming an integral part of language itself, at the quantum level of language, at the very foundation of language relationships.
Not an adjunct as in a pre-internet financial or sports story (‘October copper up 1 and 1/2’ or ‘Roberto Clemente went four-for-four against the Giants’) but as an actual scalar value allied to story itself.
We are mapping language, its meaning and its context, crudely, at first, it’s true, in everything from advertising response rates to clinical diagnoses to legislative policy to supply chains and supply circles—and creating data-sets against these texts and behaviours.
This new cartography is an unprecedented meshing of meaning and number.
The technological response? Databases are growing at staggering rates; memory and computing speeds are no longer limits to database growth.
Far less well known is the rate at which language taxonomies are growing, to organize language against data (ontologies); ontologies are a critical ingredient in how databases will come to ‘speak’ to one another, creating valuable pattern languages, cross-relationships and insights, enabling data storytelling as a universal language.
Ontologies are the roadmaps to data storytelling.
the human factor
But we’re nowhere near comprehensible context for this tidal wave of incoming numbers, for all the data we’re accruing, and accruing ever faster.
We’re producing staggering volumes of data wastage. (It’s worth noting we haven’t even digested centuries year-old survey and weather data yet, to name but one, a deep and rich data resource for understanding, in context, the birth of North American property values in the context of long-term weather patterns.)
Here’s a caution from one of the best data scientists around, multi-awardwinning earth/environmental/computer sciences Professor Peter Fox of RPI in upstate New York at Brown’s Day of Data 2012:
We’ve got the data already, but we fundamentally lack the capability to exploit it. And it’s the human piece we are beginning to forget already, the human intuition needed in interacting with large-scale data…
Fox and other cutting-edge data scientists believe that even in its present raw state, Big Data is becoming the lingua franca of human interaction, the ‘bridge the world’ language, the answer to the ‘Babel question’; infographics and data visualizations may soon rival English as the universal signifier.
This convergence of ontology, machine data and human curation—-what Fox terms human-led ‘abduction’, intuition or inference as opposed to induction and deduction—-means data’s interlocking relationship with language will have profound effects on storytelling, markets and society itself, everything from healthcare to entertainment to politics and policy to design.
Heady, heady stuff.
But without storytelling to supply context-—in text, image, video, multimedia, audio or infographic—-all that data is so much code, untethered, a fog of numbers. And we’ve serious battles ahead.
The human-data relationship today portends one rocky marriage tomorrow, from privacy issues to the ethics of genomics to financial services.
How do you quantify yourself? We’re in the midst of an era where sensor technology and the maturation of smartphones means data is being collected about your actions in ways that have never existed before. There are no universal privacy and identity standards, which means your unwilling contributions to Big Data are being shaped by forces you can’t control…
The good news – getting familiar with Quantified Self applications will provide the benefits of self-awareness along with communities who are focused on your similar interests. You’ll understand how to better shape your identity in this new virtual economy and learn the quantitative metrics that will derive their fullest context when seen through a qualitative lens.
John Havens / The Happathon Project (http://mashable.com/2012/10/08/the-power-of-quantified-self/)
Shakespeare had the great good fortune to live and work at the very moment the database of the English language multiplied many times over in the course of a few decades; he literally rode shotgun on the explosive invention of modern English.
What that genius of both language and story would have made of the manifold multiplication of data that cracked the human genome and sent man into space and safely back and now is mapping literally everything, is unknowable.
But as always, Shakespeare’s indelible sense of the human factor rings true. Last word to him, the master of story:
It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.