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Big Data and Techno-panic ~or~ Fear, Loathing and Johannes Gutenberg

January 4, 2014

Gutenberg Robot

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 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.


13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2014 9:13 pm

    What a great piece David.

    As it turns out, I am currently writing a piece called CounterPoint – on a similar theme.

    I am looking at the emerging panic resulting from the speed at which technology accelerates change given the limits of human biology/current reality (eg. there are still only 24 hours in a day).

    This provided plenty of food for thought – for example – I had not seen the Genevieve Bell interview or thought about impacts across time, space and other people simultaneously. An interesting idea.

    Keep it coming, love your work

    • January 7, 2014 3:15 pm

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. It does indeed seem like we are both following a trail of the same beast!

      I particularly like your parenthetical “(eg. there are still only 24 hours in a day)”. Based on the Bell material, I’m starting to wonder if we will not soon all have to reformulate our concept of what a “day” means. For example, my wife and I live in an historic seashore town in New Jersey and a friend of ours recently mentioned that a little over 100 years ago, traveling by horse and buggy, it took a day and a half to travel from Philadelphia to our town, Cape May. Today it takes about 80 minutes by car! But think about it, not that long ago “a day” meant 3/4 of the work needed to travel one-way between Philadelphia and Cape May. What if back then we would have told someone that they could leave Philadelphia after breakfast, be in Cape May well before lunch, and then be back in Philadelphia way before dinner?!? They could not have conceptualized that this much activity could happen in that short space of time.

      My point is that it appears we’re now entering the beginning stages of a similar recalibration. It will be very interesting to see the many of kinds of disorientation and panic these changes bring.

      Can’t wait for your piece!


  2. January 5, 2014 11:21 am

    David, what a wonderful post.

    You’ve captured a lot of information in a very tightly framed picture that I suspect will resonate with a lot of readers who are in positions of decision-making for their organizations on issues of humans and technology. We humans have always feared technology and I believe that fear comes from the fact that the enthusiasts ascribe features to these new tools as extending our humanity while skirting over the areas where the extension or similarity conflicts.

    It’s very McLuhanesque in thinking that the tools first serve as an extension and then become a part of us. Sometimes that happens. Pens and papers, books, and word processing does this with our desire for narrative and sharing. Bicycles, automobiles and airplanes do this by supporting our wish to see the world and as much of it as we can. Computer databases and web environments do to the degree that they allow us to learn more about the world, but as you allude to that works when we view the tools as sensemaking supports and aiding a complex brain. It fails when we see this as linear progressions to (???).


    • January 7, 2014 3:54 pm


      Thanks very much for your comments. You’ve now got me thinking in several directions simultaneously!

      One thought I had was about the plasticity of time and space. Writing and related communication instruments (including computers) have allowed humans to communicate across vast distances almost as if they were in the same room. In a sense, this is a compression of space. Travel innovation (everything from the wheel to the space shuttle) have allowed human to traverse distances that otherwise would have taken much longer, or been impossible by foot. This, in effect, has allowed for the compression of time.

      Your reference to McLuhan triggered the thought that it seems now we’re headed for a significant experience of the “plasticity of the self” (if you will). By this, I mean what will become of our sense of a ‘self’ that is now intimately linked (via embedded sensors and such) to the cloud where the boundaries become infinite. On the one hand we may think that such a shift takes us further from what it means to be “human”; but on the other hand, the Buddhists would say that the body is an illusory boundary to begin with. Will a “cloud-self” afford us the perspective needed to better grasp an un-embodied wholeness?

      So many possibilities await!

      Thanks again.

  3. January 6, 2014 7:42 pm

    Great forward-looking thoughts here David!

    Just like your ‘pink rectangular eraser’, while reading the post, my brain kept recalling Star Trek’s Mr. Data and his ’emotion chip’.

    As you may know, the premise of Star Trek is to evolve man-kind and not to acquire individual wealth. And keeping with that premise Mr. Data viewed the opportunity to feel emotion as a way to evolve. While humans fear technology, they also see it as an enabler to gain more knowledge. Why? To us mere mortals in the 21st Century, and (sadly) more often then not, we’re more interested in acquiring power and wealth that knowledge gives us. Instead of marrying the evolution of technology with knowledge to evolve man-kind.

    I’m hopeful, with more folks like you David sharing forward-looking thoughts, we’ll get it right by the time the 24th Century rolls around. 🙂

    • January 7, 2014 4:38 pm


      Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comments.

      I think your reference to the tension between self-development and self-gratification is an important. While I’m far from a blind idealist, I do believe there is some potential for an upside to the self-seeking behaviors. I mean, that since such behaviors are sooo unsustainable, they will inevitably trigger some form of crisis–if not for the individual, then at least for the society around them. As we know from developmental theory (Ericksson, Kegan, etc), crisis is a necessary antecedent to move to the next highest stage of psychological development. In other words, I’m trying to say that, at the very least, all the self serving behavior will eventually lead to a bottoming out, which in turn could spark a tremendously beneficial move to a more developed state.

      Time will tell.

      (The 24th Century??? Well, I better get busy then!) 🙂


  4. Andrea permalink
    January 7, 2014 12:47 pm

    pink erasers… set of a small Proustian moment of time remembered…

    • January 7, 2014 4:23 pm

      Oh indeed! (And of course there is much more attached to that memory of the kindergarten eraser than I listed. I just didn’t want to get too distracted!)

      Thanks for the comment Andrea.

  5. January 16, 2014 1:49 pm

    I liked your thoughtful approach to this topic. Your point on sensemaking is a fresh take versus the usual tone of “They were so stupid back then to fear technology. Let’s not be that silly again, ok.” Though their emotions got the better of them, their fears were often founded legitimate realization that there are costs associated with any change, no matter how great the potential upside. As humans we are biased to inflate the downside more. I think those advocating the technology don’t usually acknowledge that.

    • January 16, 2014 5:37 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your support and, obviously, agree with you that there is far more going on than the typically-polarized views of disruption-anxiety. As we move ahead and technology becomes an even greater part of our lives (I was in Best Buy today and saw cloud-connected thermostats, smoke detectors, and wrist bands!) these nuances are going to become more critical. Cheers! ~d


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