Data, Data Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Think

Data, Data Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Think image 168618212 2f1a47b17aDrowning...

Drowning… (Photo credit: Charl22 ~ Charlotte Faye Addison)

The IBM Big Data website claims that “Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data — so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”. Naturally, a lot of it has low value, at least in isolation. Surveillance video and sensors are just 2 examples where plenty of data is generated “just in case” it may be needed in the future. But there’s no denying that the amount of “things” out there to learn about keeps growing at a terrifying speed. Meanwhile, our life expectancy is not increasing at a pace that can make up for that growth, nor are our brains getting any bigger. I still remember seeing Clay Shirky on stage, back in 2008, claiming that the problem “is not information overload, it’s filter failure”. Five years after that, it seems that a another way to explain it is: when the information overload is that big, filters are bound to fail. In other words: we are currently witnessing BOTH information overload AND filter failure. Once we come to terms with that, rather than admit defeat and give up, we should do what we have always done: move on and adapt.

In the very early days of humankind, knowledge was passed from generation to generation using people’s brains as the only storage available. So the elderly had a significant role as wisdom repositories – they accumulated data that could be used to make wiser decisions, and could teach youngsters based on their experience. We then found ways to persist data for longer than the span of a human life, by the means of writing and recording that knowlege longer and longer. Only very recently, we created machines that could read those records and process them. Thus, we have progressively freed our brains from menial tasks, allowing us to repurpose our brains for higher level processing.

When my mother went to school in Brazil, many decades ago, she had to learn a language that was dead for 15 centuries, give or take: Latin. The argument was that you couldn’t fully understand and master Portuguese unless you knew the language that preceded it. Naturally, other disciplines such as science, geography, history and math started becoming more essential to the modern life, and Latin disappeared from the curriculum before my time. Still, I spent years of my youth memorizing facts, dates, multiplication tables, formulas and historical names of people and places. We still don’t see it clearly, but that method of learning is likely also going the way of the Dodo – or the way of the Latin, if you will.

The old generations often criticize the attention span of today’s youth, their multitasking behavior, apparent thoughtless decision making process and lack of commitment to long term learning activities. What is missed in that line of thinking is that they are not doing that because they are obnoxious or sloppy. They are doing that because they are adapting to today’s world.

We probably can learn from them as much as they can learn from us. In a world where information moves and changes at a frenetic pace, we will need more and more people who can learn fast, keep multiple balls in the air, go wide instead of going deeper, and make decisions based on incomplete sets of information. Being able to read and understand the 1900 pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in the French original is commendable, and we will still need to have some of us who can do that, the same way that some people still can speak and write Latin. But for most of us, time is at a premium, and spending weeks to consume those pages comes at the expense of not doing something else. So, while far from ideal, knowing “Les Mis” via its Hugh Jackman and – oh well – Russel Crowe incarnation will have to do. It may feel superficial, poor and sad to admit that, but there’s a reason why Latin died – it eventually became impractical to speak such a convoluted language.

What does this mean to our work life? A lot. We’ll start seeing our communication systems to move away from single queue, single purpose platforms such as email and file repositories to more organic, centralized, multi-purpose ecosystems, capable of handling higher volumes. Our current approach of considering our email inbox our “to do list” is not sustainable when the daily incoming flow is approaching the 3-digit mark. The traditional “out-of-office” message will soon read: “I’m away from the office and will NOT respond to your email upon my return. If this request is urgent, please ask community X for help.” We’ll probably have to change roles and learn everything from scratch dozens of times during our careers. The “know-it-all” SME won’t be a person anymore, but a crowd. We’ll have flatter hierarchies, with a higher “doer” to “overseer” ratio. And, if you pay attention, that’s not even the future. It’s happening right now, just around you, so get ready for it. It’s a bold new world waiting to be discovered by us.

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