True insight: creating meaning in a data driven world

August 13, 2018

“Before we demand more of our data, we need to demand more of ourselves” – Nate Silver


There is always a crisis in marketing: from new consumer sophistication, to new channels; from new thinking (like Behavioural Economics) to delivering more accountable ROI in the boardroom. And for every crisis there arises a new White Knight: Day After Recall, Tracking, neuromarketing, NPS scores, channel neutrality and now….Big Data.

One of the unfortunate legacies of FW Taylor’s Scientific Management is what I have called the arithmocracy.

I use the term to describe a system that I find increasingly pernicious and prevalent, and not just in the domain of business: think of school league tables, the UK NHS service, or targets for other bodies such as the police force.

There are two variants to the definition:


1. The system of government whereby the pursuit of numerical solutions leads to runaway measurement at the expense of imagination, creativity and fulfilment.

2. A ruling class (cf. democracy, autocracy), which derives its power not through intelligence or merit but by means of its access to and control of numbers.


My worry is that in our era, which could be characterised as Data Rich Insight Poor (DRIP), the arrival and veneration of Big Data is helping those who put the anal into analysis at the expense of what we should all be working towards: the pursuit of transformative business insights and innovation via strategic and creative means.

Instead, it is fuelling the physics envy that much of marketing suffers from, and it is turning us all increasingly into slaves to the algorithm seeking safety in numbers.


From data to meaning 

So, I would like to see a new focus, not on Big Data but on a role that sees its goal as creating and managing meaning.

Let us all think of ourselves as being ‘meaning managers’.

Big Data will be one of the tools for creating meaning but no more.

I want to see Big Data takes its rightful place as part of an integrated theory. The main principles of this theory would be:

  • A shared theory and understanding of human behaviour and communication, which must underlie any attempt at deriving or analysing human behaviour.
  • Accepting that insight compresses information into attention, but that we must avoid the temptation of conflating Big Data with genuine insight and the false sense of “safety in numbers”.
  • Knowing when data [big or otherwise] is relevant and sufficient, and when data cannot contribute to genuinely non-incremental innovation, and the strategic and creative breakthroughs which precede it.

This means acknowledging the power of instinct, theory, understanding, observation and other ways of seeing that do not necessarily sit under the aegis of Big Data.

To separate the two terms more distinctly: data is to be collected, insight is to be connected.

Ensuring that the communication of insightment is conducted via storytelling as an antidote to the remorseless march of the arithmocracy.


Here are three ways to create insightment and fight against our innate analytical bias:


Cherish Failure


“Fallor ergo sum” [I am wrong, therefore I am] – St Augustine


We have become so driven by the need to succeed and so ready to punish failure (ask any football manager) that we have lost the essence of St Augustine’s words.

Etymology fans (who I hope will find plenty to enjoy in the book) will point out too that “errare” in Latin means ‘to wander’ (still visible in the word “erratic” and “aberrant”) with no hint of failure.

Scientists like Darwin and Vilfredo Pareto (signor 80/20) and modern screenwriters like Charlie (“Being John Malkovich”) Kaufman have all testified to the liberating power of failure and error.

So, we need to wander more, idly daydream while unconscious System 1 does its work of finding insight in its own serendipitous way.


Stay Naïve

Hemmed in by groupthink, frightened of going against the rest of our tribe/team/company, bouncing around the echo-chamber of our own frozen assumptions and conventions, we have to unthink (in every sense) how we liberate ourselves from the prison of logic and extend our cognitive diversity.

Much has been written by the likes of Professor Philip Tetlock, professor of political psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, on our over-reliance on (narrow) expertise and how it is a hindrance to genuine new thinking of all forms. There is a strong body of evidence from Tetlock that the accuracy of experts in all fields is disconcertingly mythical.

So, we need to resist the lure of being wholly Insider Thinkers and act like we are also seeing things as Outsiders, who make new connections, see new links and create genuinely disruptive ideas.


Embrace Serendipity

Of the six universal human emotions that scientists since Darwin and Paul Ekman have identified, surprise is perhaps the least appreciated.

The shock or twist of recognition means that it penetrates our conscious filters (what I call ‘attention spam’) and will create the emotional cue of ‘aha’, ‘eureka’ or Asimov’s ‘that’s funny’ without which any insightment is doomed to fail [and here I really do mean fail].

Examples include Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, arguably literature’s first detective story, and Andrew Stanton, director and writer of Wall-E, Up and the various Toy Stories.

So let us encourage our unconscious system 1 to come into contact with what experts call ESIs- external serendipitous influences. We need to go out of our way to decompartmentalise and flood ourselves, or more accurately our unthinking System 1, with cross-cultural, inter-disciplinary randomness, serendipity, and spontaneity; to seek out the challenging, quirky and eclectic, maybe even the arcane and recondite.

Only then can we turn data into insight in a way that appeals to our innate curiosity and creativity.


About the author

Anthony TasgalTas is the author of The Inspiratorium: flitting between the poles of science and art, hedgehogs and foxes, quantum physics and etymology, philosophy and football, ancient history and artificial intelligence, this book is a web of connections, of jumps and leaps that will take you to different places and areas that will intrigue and inspire.

His previous book, The Storytelling Book was runner up in 2016’s Marketing Book of the Year and is already on a fourth reprint.


To hear more from Tas, check out Episode #97 of the LID Radio podcast.

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