Big Data and Techno-panic ~or~ Fear, Loathing and Johannes Gutenberg
In addition to the doctoral writing, over the past week I’ve been working on another piece about the rise of big data and the opportunity it offers for expanding our psychological capacity. The general idea is that accelerating technological capacity could support us in understanding the brain as something more than a data recall device. This, in turn, could help us develop our ability to engage in more complex forms of social interaction.
Because there’s a lot going on there, that piece has gotten much bigger than I initially intended. (And why am I surprised?). Eventually it may wind up as an article but for now I’m going to remix some of the more interesting parts and put them us as individual posts. This piece is one of those.
Computers Taking Over?
While researching my original piece I started to come upon a lot of commentary on how this latest crop of computing advances—including big data and cognitive computing –posed a significant threat to our current way of life. A recurring theme was that computers were soon to become smarter than human beings so it was just a matter of time before the cyberworld took over.
Some of this writing was just plain silly; but some was fairly well-reasoned (like this one that features examples from Amazon.com and comments from Marc Andreessen). However the one thing all these warnings shared shared was this familiar sense of panic that our own technological progress was going to do us in. (Remember Y2K?)
Then an interesting fact emerged as I dug further into the history of fear over technological advances. It seems that so-called techno-panics have been a predictable stage in the cultural integration of new technologies going as far back as 1439—that’s when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. (The worry at that time was that by putting the monks who served as scribes out of business, the printing press would help ensure the moral downfall of European society.)
So What’s This Have To Do With Organizations?
Fears of unemployed monks aside, it seems clear that if organizations know that techno-panic is a real thing, they can anticipate it and figure out ways to avert such concerns and channel them constructively.
But even more than that, as I dug a bit into the material, I had a lingering sense that something a bit more involved was going on. There seemed to be something different about this techno-panic that set it apart from something like what attended Y2K. This wasn’t just going to dissipate. Instead, this one had something important to teach us about who we are as human beings and how we relate to one another—particularly within the context of organizational life.
Shifting Sensemaking’s Tectonic Plates
James Gleick has written that “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought”. How this applied to the notion of techno-panic became clear as I read an intriguing piece in the Wall Street Journal. The article features an interview with Genevieve Bell, the director of Intel’s Interaction and Experience Research. Bell believes that techno-panics are most disruptive when the emerging technology impacts all three of the following:
- Our relationship to time.
- Our relationship to space.
- Our relationship to other people.
What struck me about these three relationships—besides, of course, the recognition that the current crop of technological advances will turn them upside down—was that they are all crucial to the context in which sensemaking takes place.
In other words, the process of sensemaking relies on interacting with others to create a coherent map of an otherwise incoherent situation. This map is deeply linked context–a particular time, place, and set of individuals. If changes in technology mean we’re going to interact with time, space, and others differently, we are then shifting the “tectonic plates” upon which our ways of making sense of the world are anchored.
To understand what this means for organizations, it helps to take a closer look at how the human beings process information about the world around them.
A Post-Processing View of the Human Brain
Dave Snowden often makes the point that the common notion that the human brain works just like a computer is flat out wrong. While this analogy may help us better understand how a computer works, it does little to help us understand the human brain.
As Snowden puts it, we are not data processors, we’re pattern recognition devices. He backs his point up by citing research from cognitive scientists Fauconnier and Turner. (By the way, their latest book The Way We Think is quite simply amazing. A revelation, I’d say.)
As Fauconnier and Turner point out, our brains do not simply record and recall raw data as a computer does. Instead, we make sense of our enviroments by recognizing stored conceptual patterns and combining them with patterns derived from present conditions. While these patterns often contain data-like facts and figures, those facts and figures are always embedded within a very specific context—people, places, sights, smells, textures, and the like.
For example, to this day I cannot use a pink retangular eraser without recalling my first day of kindergarten and the lemony smell of the pink eraser I was given then. (TMI perhaps??)
What This Has To Do With Techno-panic
The point here is that if human beings are little more than data processors, then current techno-panics are quite rational and justified since computers will become more human than humans. This of course means that, just like the unemployed monks, our days are numbered.
However, as Fauconnier and Turner point out, if we are instead pattern recognizers and remixers then techno-panics are not justified. But, they do start to make a bit of sense.
Remember Gleick’s point that “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought”. That is because—at least, in part–a new medium creates a new context within which the process of sensemaking occurs. If current, familiar mediums are being replaced, then so is our entire way of making sense of the world. Fearing the loss of familiar sensemaking routines, it seems quite reasonable that our deeply buried fears of annihilation would surface in some form or other.
Making Constructive Use of All This
For those thinking about organizations, all this may seem just too, too abstract and theoretical. However on the other hand, for those organizations that already understand the dynamic and social nature of knowledge, this information could prove quite valuable. It could, as just one example, help cultivate a more synergistic alignment between human sensemaking processes and emerging technologies.
For the organziations that really get this, something far more interesting and far more fruitful than techno-panic awaits.
But more on that later.