Confusion in the Age of Data

Contrary to popular opinion, we do not yet live in the Information Age. At best, we live in the Data Age—a time when bits of data constantly zoom past our eyes and buzz past our ears, yet few of them inform us meaningfully and usefully. We’re spending millions to put all of that “Big Data” into “The Cloud” without first learning how to separate the signals from the noise. A storm cloud of our own making is already raining confusion down upon us.

Last week I gave a keynote presentation and taught a course at the Teradata Universe conference in Dublin, Ireland. At one point while wandering through the Dublin Convention Center I read the following banner:

This was one of many banners that were strategically placed throughout the convention center to promote the conference by highlighting the importance of information. Upon reading the words of FedEx CEO Fred Smith, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realized why my packages sometimes arrive damaged. The information about the package is as important as the package itself? Seriously? In our enthusiasm for information and information technology, let’s not lose perspective. Information is only important when it informs us meaningfully about something that actually exists in the world that has value. Information about my package is only important if it gets that package to me intact. The information derives its value from the package. Information has no value in and of itself.

We won’t be ready for a true information age until we learn to make sense of data. Being surround by an over abundance of facts (some true and some false) is not helpful. Until we can separate the signals (meaningful and useful truths) from the noise (meaningless and useless bits of data), all of those facts complicate our lives without benefit.

The problems that I help people resolve as they struggle to make better decisions in their organizations based on data are much like the problems that committed journalists struggle with when trying to speak truth to the public. On Sunday I watched an intelligent discourse between Bill Moyers and a fellow named Marty Kaplan, who currently works for the Lear Center. The interview was titled “Marty Kaplan on Big Money’s Effect on Big Media” (Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, April 27, 2012), which you can read in its entirety at BillMoyers.com.

I want to share excerpts from this interview, which I found particularly enlightening.

On the content of modern day journalism

Marty Kaplan: We, not long ago, did a study of the Los Angeles media market. We looked at every station airing news and every news broadcast they aired round the clock. And we put together a composite half hour of news. How much in that half hour was about transportation, education, law enforcement, ordinances, tax policy; everything involving locals, from city to county? The answer is, in a half hour, 22 seconds.

Bill Moyers: Twenty-two seconds devoted to what one would think are the serious issues of democracy, right?

Marty Kaplan: Yes. Whereas, in fact, there are three minutes about crime, and two and a half minutes about the ugliest dog contest, and two minutes about entertainment. There’s plenty of room for stuff that the stations believe will keep people from changing the dial.

Bill Moyers: So they will tell you, however, that they’re in the entertainment business. That they’re in the business to amuse the public, to entertain the public. And if they do these serious stories about the schools or about the highways or about this or that, the public tunes out.

Marty Kaplan: It’s one of the great lies about broadcasting now. There are consultants who go all around the country and they tell the general managers and the news directors, “It is only at your peril that you cover this stuff.” But one of the things that we do is, the Lear Center gives out the Walter Cronkite award for excellence in television political journalism every two years. And we get amazing entries from all over the country of stations large and small, of reporters under these horrendous odds, doing brilliant pieces and series of pieces, which prove that you can not only do these pieces on a limited budget, but you can still be the market leader.

It used to be that the news programs that aired, believe it or not, had news on them. They had investigative stories. But then somewhere in the 1980s, when 60 Minutes started making a profit, CBS put the news division inside the entertainment division. And then everyone followed suit. So ever since then, news has been a branch of entertainment and, infotainment, at best.

But there was a time in which the press, the print press, news on television and radio were speaking truth to power, people paid attention, and it made a difference. I don’t think the Watergate trials would have happened, the Senate hearings, had there not been the kind of commitment from the news to cover the news rather than cutting away to Aruba and a kidnapping.

Bill Moyers: What is the basic consequence of taking the news out of the journalism box and putting it over into the entertainment box?

Marty Kaplan: People are left on their own to fend for themselves. And the problem is that there’s not that much information out there, if you’re an ordinary citizen, that comes to you. You can ferret it out. But it oughtn’t be like that in a democracy. Education and journalism were supposed to, according to our founders, inform our public and to make democracy work.

We can’t do it unless we’re smart. And so the consequence is that we’re not smart. And you can see it in one study after another. Some Americans think that climate change is a hoax cooked up by scientists, that there’s no consensus about it. This kind of view could not survive in a news environment, which said, “This is true and that’s false.” Instead we have an environment in which you have special interest groups manipulating their way onto shows and playing the system, gaming the notion that he said she said is basically the way in which politics is now covered.

It’s all about combat. If every political issue is the combat between two polarized sides, then you get great television because people are throwing food at each other. And you have an audience that hasn’t a clue, at the end of the story, which is why you’ll hear, “Well, we’ll have to leave it there.” Well, thank you very much. Leave it there.

On objectivity in journalism

Bill Moyers: You have talked and written about “the straightjacket of objectivity.” Right? What is that?

Marty Kaplan: Well, the problem with telling the truth is that in this postmodern world, there’s not supposed to be something as truth anymore. So all you can do if you are a journalist is to say, “Some people say.” Maybe you can report a poll. Maybe you can quote somebody. But objectivity is only this phony notion of balance, rather than fact-checking.

There are some gallant and valiant efforts, like PolitiFact and Flackcheck.org that are trying to hold ads and news reports accountable. But by and large, that’s not what you’re getting. Instead the real straightjacket is entertainment. That’s what all these sources are being forced to be. Walter Lippmann in the 1920s had a concept called “spectator democracy” in which he said that the public was a herd that needed steering by the elites. Now he thought that people just didn’t have the capacity to understand all these complicated issues and had to delegate it to experts of various kinds.

But since then, the notion of spectator democracy has, I think, extended to include the need to divert the country from the master narrative, which is the influence and importance and imperviousness to accountability of large corporations and the increasing impotence of the public through its agency, the government, to do anything about it. So the more diversion and the more entertainment, the less news, the less you focus on that story, the better off it is.

We are programmed to love stories. That is in our genes. Our wiring says that when you say, “Once upon a time,” I am hooked. When you show me conflict between two people, I want to know who’s going to win. That’s how it’s always been. And it happens that politics is now the substance and television is now the medium in which to bedazzle us, to enthrall us, which means enslave us just as it has been all through human history.

On misleading political ads

Bill Moyers: Do you think these ads make us stupid?

Marty Kaplan: We start stupid. The brain is wired to be entertained. We don’t pay attention to the words. We pay attention to the pictures and the drama and the story. If it’s pretty, if it’s exciting, if it’s violent, if it’s fast, that’s where we are. So the fact that these mini dramas are being used to get us to vote for one person or another is just like what we all learned propaganda was used for and thought we learned our lessons from in World War II. They are propaganda. And propaganda is irresistible. If it were resistible, people wouldn’t do it.

Bill Moyers: Don’t you think most people are now jaundiced about these ads? They know it’s a con?

Marty Kaplan: People say they know it’s a con, just as they say that they are not being swayed by the ads for products that they see on television. If that were true, there would not be a multibillion dollar advertising industry. If that stuff didn’t work, that would not be on the air. So no matter what we say, no matter how clever we are, we are susceptible to it.

On the Internet as a source of information

Marty Kaplan: The problem is that the Internet is at best the Wild West, in which that kind of information competes with other stuff in this great bazaar. I mean, at this booth over here, you get some important investigative journalism. At that booth over there, you get Charlie Bit My Finger or whatever the YouTube hit of the month happens to be. And they’re all on equal footing.

Bill Moyers: How much bad information is too much, Marty? When does it start transforming our brain and our body politic?

Marty Kaplan: I think we’re there now. I think there is so much misinformation out there that on issue after issue, we have opinions but not facts. And we despair of ever being able to get to the bottom of it and despair of ever having a decision being based on what is accurate, true, and useful, rather than who has the most money to put up enough ads in order to sway the public debate.

On push vs. pull journalism

Marty Kaplan: Push journalism is the old days, which seem no longer to apply in the era of the Internet, in which an editor, a gatekeeper, says, “Here’s the package which you need to know.” All of that is ancient history now.

Instead, now, it’s all driven by what the consumer is pulling. And if the consumer says, “I want ice cream all the time.” And whether that ice cream is Lindsay Lohan, or the latest crime story, that’s what’s delivered. And as long as it’s being pulled, that’s what is being provided. So it’s quite possible that in the U.S., the calculation was made that the crisis in Europe and the head of Italy would not be a cover that one could use. But that pet friendships would be the sort of thing that would fly off the newsstand.

Bill Moyers: So the reader is determining what we get from the publication?

Marty Kaplan: On a minute by minute basis, stories that the reader’s interested in immediately go to the top of the home page. There are actually pieces of software that give editorial prominence to stuff that people by voting with their clickers have said is of interest to them. No one is there to intervene and say, “Wait a minute, that story is just too trivial to occupy more than this small spot below the fold.” Instead, the audience’s demand is what drives the placement and the importance of journalistic content.

On amusing ourselves to death

Bill Moyers: So George Orwell anticipated a state as big brother, hovering over us, watching us, keeping us under surveillance, taking care of our needs as long as we repaid them with utter loyalty. Aldous Huxley anticipated a Brave New World in which we were amusing ourselves to death. Who’s proving the most successful prophet? Huxley or Orwell?

Marty Kaplan: Well, I think Huxley is probably right, as Neil Postman [the sociologist] said in Amusing Ourselves to Death that “There’s no business but show business.” And we are all equally guilty, because it’s such fun to be entertained. So you don’t need big brother, because we already have big entertainment.

Bill Moyers: And the consequences of that?

Marty Kaplan: That we are as in Brave New World, always in some kind of stupor. We have continual partial attention to everything and tight critical attention on nothing.

The parallels between a journalist’s use of information to inform the public and our use of information to inform better decisions in our organizations are significant and intimate. The poor state of information sensemaking and display (bad graphics, for example) is in part due to a preference for infotainment. As long as decision makers prefer to be entertained by flashy graphics with circus colors rather than meaningfully informed by clear presentations of truth, our organizations will continue to function poorly and irresponsibly. Data warehousing and the business intelligence industry that grew out of it has been with us for 30 years. The stated objective has always been to enable better decisions based on data, but despite the huge data stores that we’ve amassed, to what degree has data-based decision making actually increased? Little, if at all. Business intelligence has made relatively few of us smarter and more than a few of us stupider. Most of us lack the data sensemaking skills that are required to use data effectively. Most of us are still encumbered by primitive and dysfunctional data sensemaking tools. And yes, most of us would rather be entertained than informed, living “in some kind of stupor.” Isn’t it time to wake up?

Take care,

7 Comments on “Confusion in the Age of Data”


By Mat. May 1st, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Hey Steven,

Just commending you on another great article! Also really enjoyed the Bill Moyers interview with Marty Kaplan (not sure if we get the show here in Australia, would be great though).

I thought I’d also point you and others to a relatively new BI resource I’ve found on the Net. Slashdot (http://slashdot.org/topic/bi/) now have a site dedicated to BI topics and articles. I think it could be a valuable source of non-vendor-associated BI content, and could be interesting given Slashdot’s decidedly IT/technical readership.

Regards,

Mat

By Andrew. May 4th, 2012 at 8:38 am

As usual, excellent article Stephen. I like the comparison between modern journalists pandering to viewer interest and BI vendors pandering to customers’ aspirations to attend a circus; it really drives the point home.

I would, however, like to point out that your comparison isn’t limited to flashy bells and whistles (as I’m sure you’re already aware). As journalism targets the lowest common denominator, sometimes BI tends toward hazardous simplicity as well. Decision makers don’t typically have a proficient grasp of subjects like statistics or performance measurement, and thus have a tendency to focus on less-meaningful, easier-to-understand metrics, shying away from anything that requires them to think (even though, as “decision-makers”, thinking should be their job).

I recall one experience where a dashboard showed inventory in a half-dozen warehouses, each compared to a different target (using a bar-chart; nothing flashy). A user wanted me to add the average inventory for all warehouses. Obviously an average means nothing here; worse yet, if someone focuses on the average, they miss out on useful information. What if one warehouse is way below target, and another way above? Such a metric is not only useless - it’s harmful. But I was unable to convince the user of this fact; the ease of looking at a single number was all too appealing.

By James Karis. May 5th, 2012 at 7:00 am

Hi Steve

Thanks for a great article.

For a while I have been pondering this notion of the truth. Specifically, what is the truth? And does it even exist?

These days, for every situation you can think of, you can find proponents arguing a strong case, both for and against. We all know that they both can’t be right, but how does the average Joe figure it out?

In the pre-internet era, I initially believed that we were ‘told the truth’ by those we trusted. Upon reflection, I now believe that we were ‘told what we needed to know’. Since the story teller was the only voice, we accepted their view as the truth.

So in the past, for a given situation, we had 1 view, which made it simple to accept, and action accordingly.

Now days, for a given situation, we have so many multiple views, which is so confusing, that we don’t know what to do.

Do we not run the same risk with our BI systems in that as they become more sophisticated and we create more ‘views’ from even more data, our users run the risk of getting bogged down by all the noise. They spend so much time trying to understand all these metrics, KPIs, scorecards, dashboards etc. that they lose focus and don’t know what to do.

I don’t think that end-users have become stupider, just more confused. And if that’s true, then the fault lies with us, the BI industry.

I personally look forward to the time when we as the industry recognise this as a problem, and take the Apple remote control approach to simplify. Before Apple iTV, most remote controls had 40+ buttons. The Apple iTV has 1. It works. With all the complex bits hidden in the background, even my 3 year old can use it. Even more impressive, my elderly parents-in-law, can use it too.

I truly believe our BI systems should be the same. Put the complex, high-horsepower bits behind the scene, and make it really simple for users to make good decisions.

Wishing you all the best on your journey to BI greatness.

James Karis

By Chris Gerrard. May 5th, 2012 at 7:02 am

Let’s hope that there will be enough awareness of the various perils identified in this brief article that some ember of awareness can survive the intellectual darkness that’s enshrouding us.

There’s a similar article I read recently, sorry I don’t have a link at hand, showing that the level of positive or negative facial expression by TV announcers towards subjects has a hugely disproportionate effect on the approval or disapproval reactions by the audience towards the subject. Largely explaining Fox’s success in sculpting the attitudes of a massive segment of the American audience.

Why is it like this? Perhaps because the United States, of all the first world countries adopted two practices: the airwaves were turned over to commercial interests as vehicles to pursue their profits without regard for the public good; and in post-WWII USA a concerted effort was made to create a nation of consumers who would uncritically respond to commercial advertising.

These conditions established a positive feedback system in which the drive to the bottom rewarded and reinforced those most successful at eliminating intelligence and contemplation from the public sphere.

Our community isn’t immune to this. We still have very vocal members who claim that pie charts are good, that sexy sells so selling sexy is good, and precision and accuracy are second class citizens to flashy attention-getting.

One only look into the LinkedIn groups named with permutations of “Business Intelligence” to see the sad state of affairs.

By Tom. May 7th, 2012 at 11:07 am

Steve,

Great article. I really like the comparisons you draw between the state of media and BI.

I have an issue with Mr. Kaplan’s stance on the issue of “push vs pull.” While it is indeed true that the consumer has more choices and flexibility than ever before, thanks to cable news and the internet, I think Mr. Kaplan has oversimplified the dynamics of consumption. Yes, consumers can and do consume information based on their preferences, but the producers of the material play an active role in shaping those preferences. At the very least, they reinforce those preferences by acting as an echo chamber. In some cases, the views of a select few are promoted above all others. Not to pick on Fox News, but it’s pretty common knowledge at this point that Roger Ailes has a great deal of influence over what topics are given priority (anything critical of Barack Obama) and what topics are buried (anything critical of Rupert Murdoch). In short, it is clear that the media is in the driver’s seat, regardless of our ability to find multiple sources of information and choose what we like. I’m not saying Mr. Kaplan is wrong, I just think there is much more too it than what he mentioned in the interview.

Oh, and for the record, I’m TOTALLY not swayed by advertisements. I was going to sell all of my gold jewelry anyways!

Tom

By Stephen Few. May 7th, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Well said, Tom. Viewer preferences alone don’t determine the content of media outlets.

By DataInAction. May 10th, 2012 at 8:42 am

“As long as decision makers prefer to be entertained by flashy graphics with circus colors rather than meaningfully informed by clear presentations of truth, our organizations will continue to function poorly and irresponsibly. ”

AMEN!

I would take exception with your statement however that data-based decision making has not increased in the last 30 years. In my experience it has increased significantly and much of it has been built directly into the infrastructure of business processes (e.g. vendors no longer have to decide how much product to ship to warehouses, data and trends decide for them.). Are people any smarter? Probably not. But to the degree that data driven systems have taken “finger in the air” estimates out of the business process, our organizations are much smarter. Still much work to do though. Good article.