Data Versus Ideas

So many topics of conversation don’t seem to be able to go very far these days without mentioning data – how important it is, how it’s the new oil, how it all help us solve all the problems. And every time it comes up I become more and more skeptical about what all this data actually represents. While many are seeing data as a saviour that will help society change and remake itself, I’m starting to see it as a weight dragging us down stifling creativity and drowning innovation.

Theres a growing opinion (one with substantial fever and fanaticism attached) that data is the thing that’ll drive the future. It’s quite an interesting point of view because data is a record of the past, it’s a record of what happened at a certain point in time. When you apply this concept of data to future mapping and making decisions, all that’s happening is pattern matching, which in effect just reinforces the status quo. When data is used to inform the future, it does so by seeking to replicate the past. And when it tries to do the opposite, it’s creating a future for which there is no certainty, no test and no precedent. Data-informed decisions create a feedback loop that become data-enforced decisions. When we start to hand over more and more of the decisions we make to algorithms based on this data, we’re create a viscous circle enforced by its own logic, one based on reinventing the past.

My observation is that this obsession with data is getting in the way of ideas, and precisely the kinds of ideas that we need in order to build a better future. To change the way things are, because they need to change. What we need is some external input, but the data loops that have been created don’t allow that, they stifle creativity and attempt to drown these new signals out because it doesn’t fit the logic of the loop. Evolution isn’t driven by the ability to maintain the status quo, but on creating anomalies that don’t fit the model, those that are better suited to the environment survive and generate change. Data drowns those anomalies seeing them as noise as it seeks to normalise the process.

We need a space for ideas to thrive, where we can experiment and innovate. But the way data frames everything, it’s becoming impossible to do that. Today data is a requirement for innovation, not an outcome of it.

“You’re new idea makes perfect sense, no one has ever done that before. But where’s the data to back you up?”

The obsession with data has created a chicken-and-egg cycle that stops innovation. You can’t access funds, or even apply for research without a preexisting data set to draw on. The need for data has made us so risk adverse that its draining society of its creativity.

Is it any wonder that the cinema is full of re-boots and remakes?

That every innovation out of Silicon Valley seems to be a copy an existing public service with an app and a cost shift to the person providing the labour?

Industries and locations famed for their creativity are so devoid of fresh ideas because anything new has been starved of funds because there’s no data to back it up!

At the same time this data obsession is creating a surveillance based prison where we are all being tracked and monitored – and for what? For all the data being collected what have we managed to achieve? A non-state based surveillance corporation that stores and mines Stasi-like levels of intimate data – to sell ads? Fringe groups and state based intelligence services who game the data driven algorithms to propagate propaganda that damages democracy and swing elections?

But what about science Tim? What about research, how do we learn without data?

I’m not advocating for a data free world — although I would support an effort to quarantine certain aspects of people’s lives and spaces as off limits. We can use data, but use it to create knowledge rather than replace it. Use it to learn with, not from. We need to ensure we don’t lose our creative ability for the sake of generating data. Data should only ever be the exhaust to the work being done, not the fuel for it.

Data will only ever show us the past, so let’s not make it our future.

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