Yesterday morning I had a Big Data experience when I visited the Louvre Museum in Paris. Within 15 minutes of arriving I was ready to run screaming from the glass pyramid. Why? Because I was overwhelmed. Room after room of artistic works totaling in the hundreds of thousands, each magnificent, was too much. I found it nearly impossible to appreciate a single piece when I was surrounded by so many others. Pick any one of those glorious works and place it before me in a quiet room with good lighting and I would study it for hours. Give me something to read that describes the work—the artist, the medium from which it was created, the historical context—and I would appreciate it for an entire day. Place it among thousands of its brethren and I might fail to see it altogether.
We are surrounded by data. In our present day of so-called Big Data, there is more and more of it every day. Anyone who has ever actually worked with data in an effort to make better decisions knows that most of the data that surrounds us is noise. It’s useless. We seek the signals that reside here and there in the midst of the noise. While I stood there in the Louvre this morning, every piece of art was a masterpiece in its own right—every piece a signal—but to me they were all noise because there was too much for my senses to take in or my brain to fathom. Yes, even signals become noise when we’re overwhelmed. I tried desperately to fix my attention on a single piece, but over and over again I failed. I couldn’t shut out the other voices constantly invading my senses yelling “Look at me!” Yes, I saw the Mona Lisa with her enigmatic smile from behind the barrier while being jostled by the photo-taking crowd, but I couldn’t connect with her or the genius of da Vinci, whose work I so admire.
Others in the Louvre yesterday added the Mona Lisa and a host of other works to their lists of important encounters and no doubt felt enlarged by their experience. But were they enriched in a meaningful way? Did the artists’ voices reach their ears through the din? Were they awakened or did they merely roll over in their sleep?
Data becomes information only when it informs. For that to happen, we must find a signal in the midst of the noise and study it closely enough to understand it. This takes time. This takes attention. This takes skill. Only when this occurs has something useful entered our minds.