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Data will eventually drop you in the deep end

‘Woman following Sat-Nav drives straight into lake.’ The story that follows this headline captures all my fears on the dark pool of data. Humans are beginning to rely on technology instead of using their own common sense.   

Clearly Sat-Nav is a good thing. It takes a lot of the stress out of finding your destination so you can enjoy or at least concentrate on the driving. Data, big data - does much the same thing. It tells you where to drive your messaging, it tells you what to say, when to say it and how to say it. It's your mum, your dad, your best teacher, your boss and it’s your driving instructor. And occasionally, it’ll tell you to drive into a lake. If you let it.   

I hosted a roundtable last month about the importance of ideas. One person on my table said quite happily - they (and their wider business) won't even consider an idea unless it has data to back it up. I asked her if she thought it was sad? Surprisingly the table looked back at me as if I was selling doner kebabs at a vegan picnic. Obviously, I had asked the wrong question. I should have asked ‘how do you feel about ignoring your responsibility as a marketeer?’  

The decision not to make decisions

Because that's what she’s doing. When a daft Canadian woman drove her car into a lake, that's exactly what she did. She took a decision not to make any more decisions. She let her car drive her instead. She trusted the data to a point that she sunk her car because the idea of saying ‘no, you're wrong’ to her Sat-Nav was harder than hitting the water at 30 miles per hour.   

Data is the light and the dark. For instance, it can help you target the right people, when it comes to retention models the value is pretty apparent. Clearly it has a lot of uses, and brings much more powerful tools to the mix. But when it comes to creativity, I mean ideas and artistry that moves people emotionally and physically, then let's be honest… it's easy to let data corrupt the essence of being human. We allow numbers and words tell us what we want, we let them tell us what our clients and partners want, but we don’t question whether they are reliable. Because the science of data is not a social science. 

Look at the maths behind the Brexit polls and now the presidential polls in America. Many of us Brits expected to go into the month of July still as part of the 28-state alliance; well, at least this is what the data implied. However, the news of the Leave campaign becoming a reality probably shook not only citizens to their core, but also several businesses with a global outlook.

Relying on inaccurate data

The last poll before the Americans started voting gave Trump a 15 per cent chance of winning. Phew, most of us thought, expecting to wake up to Hilary waving victoriously to her fans behind the podium. Instead, we rediscovered that people lie, people can be fickle and not everybody wants to share their lives, dirty pants and all with anybody else. And we ate our cornflakes to Trump walking off the stage as the president in waiting to the tune of ‘You can’t always get what you want’ by the Rolling Stones.   

Obviously bad data isn’t the reason why Trump has been voted in or us Brits voted out - I just find it interesting to note that the information behind the forecasting was so inaccurate. And yet most of us are happy to believe in it and rely on it. Because it's easier for us to trust that the information is always right. We’ve been sold a stupid idea that the simplest solution is the right answer. The world is too complex for that to be true. But who wants to work hard and make decisions when we can acquiesce to the data?   

We have now got to a stage where we check our weather apps before getting out of bed to decide what to wear. Why? Because we happily give a weather app the responsibility to choose the type of outfit we need to wear that day. If it rains and I’m dressed like Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice in a cotton suit and espadrilles, I can blame the app for my sodden mistake.

Data is cold

Forecasts weren't meant to be for the short term and local weather. But our data driven faith has skewed our use and need of the information. With it, the window becomes redundant to the screen. Back to the woman now up to her neck in a lake struggling, with her seatbelt (don't panic she survives). The car that she drove into the lake was most probably designed by a wind tunnel - like all the other cars. We’ve witnessed the gradual devolution of car design as each model gradually fades into each other in search of performance over aesthetic. Yet the way a car looks and sounds appeals to our humanity so much more than the fuel gained through a chassis with the least resistance to outside forces.   Less a car designed by people for people and more designed by data.   

That's why we always romance about classic cars. Or why cars like the Fiat 500 causes a stir. It's different, it looks fun. The people who drive expand their personal brand through it. And they don't care about mileage or acceleration. Data is powerful. Data is good. 

Data is cold. Data is only as good as the tools we use to read it. 

Data doesn't create anything new. It never allows for those leaps of faith; it will control our actions if we let it and invariably turn us all into the lowest common denominator. And data can never be human or held responsible. 

You are.  

Andy Bolter, creative partner, Yes&Pepper
Image source: Shutterstock/alexskopje