I’ll Be Watching You.


Big Data’ this, ‘Big Data’ that. As Monticello’s Melyn McKay explains, one of the quirks of modern corporate life is that we somehow expect ‘the numbers’ to show us the way…..

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love data. But data is collected through systems designed by people. And those systems are paid for by people – often with particular interests.

And so, whatever your agency/Chief Data Officer/insert-other-overpaid-analyst-here tells you, the reality is that, without a truly anthropological approach, most of the data your business gets is, to all intents and purposes, dead.

Of course, it’s not just business that is susceptible. Science itself is fallible. A point that was proved, beautifully, by two now quite famous anthropologists, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar.

They conducted ethnographic research amongst that most remote and disconnected of tribes – the scientists of San Diego’s Salk Institute.

The scientists, of course, were having none of it. Non-specialists would never understand the intricacies of the science being produced. Moreover, ran the argument, data are not produced by social or cultural processes: science is the uncovering of natural, incontrovertible fact. Like Michaelangelo before them, the Salk Institute’s world-class biologists were merely ‘freeing truths’ through the rigour of scientific method.

It’s a lovely notion – but it’s a false one. The people who collect the data matter.

As Latour and Woolgar found, the process of scientific discovery is its own narrative form; the stories fit a genre, so to speak. When a scientist tells of her findings, it is done in a linear fashion, and it ignores the other collaborators, the accidents that led to breakthroughs, the ‘inconclusive data’ thrown out because they don’t fit the experiment expectations, and the many, many failures.

Scientific activity, the production of data is not ‘freeing truths’, but rather a fierce fight to construct them. From a disordered array of observations, scientists work to produce order.

And it’s the same in business, if we’re not very, very careful. Think about how often we look for solutions to business problems or opportunities by ‘running the numbers’. I’m not suggesting that business data can’t be incredibly helpful; business-critical, in fact. Rather that too often, like the scientists at the Salk Institute, we – or others – use it to tell ourselves what we want to hear, consciously or otherwise.

This is how businesses end up missing major shifts in their industries despite, in retrospect, obvious warning signs. From Kodak to Blockbuster, there are countless recent examples – and none of them was short on data.

Anthropology not only looks at how the data are produced, but what they mean in context (society) and for your business (insight). It’s an approach that generates deeper understandings and new forms of meaning. Latour and Woolgar say as much in defending their own presence at the Salk Institute – anthropologists are trained to develop a kind of ‘weirdness’ that enables them to see everyday objects and processes in new ways.

Weird can be very, very good for business.

– this piece first kindly published by Campaign Magazine

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