We all have these moments, when the digital deluge appears to sweep us away: the email inbox is running riot, vital work documents play hide and seek on the server, the Twitter firehose is dialled to 11, the Facebook feed is rammed with stuff that may be relevant, but just not today, and all the time our devices ‘ping’ to tell us there’s a new message, tag, like or poke. Technology was supposed to help, but instead threatens to overwhelm us; even worse, at times the machines seems to be taking over, with algorithms doing the job of people who once thought that their knowledge and analytical skills would guarantee them work for life.
It’s a dire but frightfully realistic picture painted by Dave Coplin in his book ‘The Rise of the Humans’, as he counts our sins. For many, a productive workday is spent chasing the holy grail of “inbox zero”. Then there is the ‘lie of multi-tasking’; we do more and more at the same time, but end up doing less as we allow ourselves to be sucked into irrelevancy. We’re prone to digital distractions and get side-tracked by any number of notifications popping up on our digital devices. The problem: studies show that most interruptions result in a foray across our email and social newsfeeds; it takes us as much as 23 minutes to focus again on the original task. Making matters worse are our new ways of consuming information: we either snack instead of going deep, or we binge instead of looking for context. We are suffering from Infogestion and consume ‘the data equivalent of empty calories’.
These failings, argues Coplin, are simply growing pains, the bad habits of ‘the first generation of connected consumers, connected workers and connected companies in a Big Data world’. Our mistake is that all too often we use technology to speed up old ways of working, instead of fundamentally reimagining how we can use information to transform our lives. Instead of allowing the digital deluge to overwhelm us, we have to harness it.
In his book, Coplin gives us first glimpses of this new world where both companies and consumers turn information overload into a Big Data opportunity (although Coplin insists that this is not a Big Data book). The successful individuals and organisations of the future will be those that find a way to harness the deluge by creating a data culture that connects the dots, provides the context and highlights the correlations – giving us both real insight and much needed serendipity of discovery (Coplin reminds us that the original meaning of the word is not about chance discoveries, but happy accidents combined with good judgement).
In this data culture, we know how to frame and ask the right questions, and turn them into algorithms that help us sift through the digital deluge. For companies it means discovering the many dimensions of their connected customers and use this knowledge to provide highly tailored services. For customers, it means becoming active – by taking control of their own data and setting the terms on which companies can engage. Businesses, in turn, have to break down internal silos, ‘unbox’ their employees by putting the power of data into the hands of staff at the frontline of service delivery.
Dealing with the digital deluge means that we have to learn when to look up and disengage, and what tools to use when we want to go deep and get immersed. Just switching off isn’t the answer. The smart workers of tomorrow will know when technology can help – and when it can’t.
However, this vision will come to nought if we fail to build the tools that first capture and connect this deluge of unstructured information, and then sort the data wheat from all the chaff. One half of this transformation is driven by how we use information: decisions are not made based on insights from small samples anymore; instead we interrogate huge data sets that encompass most if not all the information out there. More importantly, though, we will only be able to cope with exploding data volumes if we unleash the power of the algorithms – also known as machine learning. Of course, this instantly conjures up visions of Skynet and its Terminators ruling over us humans. But as Coplin points out, all that machines can do is answer questions they’ve been given. In other words: setting the framework, asking the questions, interrogating the data, these are the jobs that only humans can do.
Having said that, it also means that there will be a redistribution of workload – from humans to machines – if it comes to executing tasks based on rules. At the same time we will see the rise of the new technology rockstars – data scientists that are both analysts and story tellers that help make sense of our world. In this Big Data world companies can do rapid trial-and-error research and execute smarter; employees are more empowered because they have instant access to vital knowledge they previously didn’t even know existed; and consumers can exploit their own data trail in return for free or better services.
Technology will not rule us all. Instead, promises Coplin, we can turn the data deluge into a set of tools where the machines are the platform for the Rise of the Humans.