Is big data killing culture?

In Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, Christian Madsbjerg analyses our societal shift away from the humanities toward science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). He suggests the sweeping nature of this shift is detrimental because “our fixation with STEM erodes our sensitivity to the nonlinear shifts that occur in all human behavior and dulls our ability to extract meaning from qualitative information.”

We have become such a data driven society. “Show me the data,” has found a place alongside “show me the money” as a management mantra.

Data is supposed to make the world predictable, markets profitable, and mistakes avoidable. Unfortunately human beings, with all of our idiosyncrasies, are often obstacles to objective calculation and effective speculation. This leads to an increasing demand for data scientists who can manage and map idiosyncrasies rather than philosophers who can help understand or explain them.

The Chief Data Scientist at a major global wealth fund told me during a recent engagement that he was recruiting 80 data scientists this year.

“Employment website Glassdoor named data scientist as the number-one job in America for 2016 based on the number of job openings, salary, and advancement opportunities,” Madsbjerg points out. “We fervently believe that more data will lead to more insights.” 

Yet, does data always tell the truth? How many times have you seen the shortfalls of data-driven decisions? From pollsters convinced of themselves during an election to marketers convinced the ad they have designed for you is sure to ‘go viral’, “big data” risks becoming a conceit of knowledge.

Do you think data about what others do can predict how you will behave? Data cannot fully predict human behavior precisely because humans beings do not only behave as an object responding to stimulus. You act in accord with deeper principles, with the demands of your conscience, in accord with your values and what truly matters to you. Human action in a given moment is ultimately unpredictable. How many times have you heard about the unlikely hero or the unexpected gift?

does data always tell the truth?

Hannah Arendt observed, “It has always been a great temptation, for men of action no less than for men of thought, to find a substitute for action in the hope that the realm of human affairs may escape the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents.”

There is no escape from this haphazardness and dare I suggest the ‘crazy’ unpredictability of life. The arts and humanities continually reveal the paradoxes, contradictions, and spontaneity of human beings. Philosophy, history, literature may not provide insight about where you will invest your money, but they will provide far greater insight about where to invest your time to construct a life and world that is truly sustainable.

To treat people as mere data is to dehumanise them. It is, in fact, to neglect the crucial datum: a person is not reducible to a quantitative measurement. This is not a theoretical matter, but something quite practical.

The arts and humanities continually reveal the paradoxes, contradictions, and spontaneity of human beings.

As Madsbjerg puts it: “We dismiss this cultural knowledge—cultivated throughout humanities thinking—at great risk to our future. When we focus solely on hard data and natural sciences—when we attempt to quantify human behavior only as so many quarks or widgets—we erode our sensitivity to all the forms of knowledge that are not reductionist. We lose touch with the books, music, art, and culture that allow us to experience ourselves in a complex social context.”

While not easy to prove in the short-term, a long view gives you the perspective to see the complexity and unpredictability of human life. Business, political, and social leaders who rely solely on data are making a fundamental mistake, but is there enough data to prove it to them?