How To Use Big Data To Our Advantage: The Man and His Image

Last week, I reflected on the perils of big data and its octopus-like embrace in Just Because Facebook is Foxy Doesn’t Mean We Need to Be Goats. This week I offer a silver lining. And if you prefer the option of listening … Fablecast Here

We are obsessed by what the Internet, in the guise of Facebook or Google or others, knows about us. And indeed, big data may be our new cerebroscope, a mythological device, which reads the true contents of our brains. While many argue for big data’s eerie accuracy and insight, just as many poke holes in its ultimate efficacy. Yet no one can deny that it yields new, often uncomfortable, insight into the human condition.

Privacy aside, the question is: do we want information that real?

A man, who loved himself without rivals, believed he was the most handsome in the world. He accused all mirrors of being false, more than happy to live in his profound error. 

To cure him, destiny conspired to place before his eyes those mute advisers women like to use. He passed mirrors in lodgings, mirrors in shops, mirrors drawn from gallants’ pockets, mirrored adornments on women’s belts.

What does our Narcissus do?  

He confines himself in the most hidden location he can imagine. To avoid encounters with mirrors proves quite a challenge. Even in this remote location, there is a pure, spring fed brook.  

He sees himself. He gets angry. His irritated eyes persist in imagining they’ve seen a meaningless chimera. He does everything to avoid the water. But what! The brook is so beautiful that it pains him to part with it.

You see what I’m getting at. I’m talking to everyone. This extreme delusion is a malady we all foster willingly. Our spirit is the man in love with himself: In all the mirrors we encounter, we see only others’ shortcomings. When the truth is—the mirrors paint our own faults.

As for the brook, it reflects the wisdom that every person knows.

When we look in the mirror of big data, we see that there is a deep vein of, for example, racism and misogyny. Here’s a data set on sexism: In his book, Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowidz, finds that parents search for “is my son a genius?” about 2.5 times more than they ask that question about their daughters. On the flipside, parents search “is my daughter overweight?” twice as often as that question applied to their sons. Well, that’s “other” parents …

If asked, many of us (most of us?) would claim compassion, open-mindedness and treating people equally regardless of race or gender (and many other traits) as “strengths” we possess. Research shows that in the West, at least, we tend to overestimate our strengths, sometimes wildly. But the same research also tells us that people are not necessarily lying. When someone claims strengths they do not in fact have, they believe their own propaganda.

We can interpret this as malevolent delusion, or we can see it in a more benevolent light. The cerebroscope does not measure our hearts. Big data does not quantify our desire to be better people than who we are today. The research also shows that most of us want to change our unproductive, unworthy and likely unconscious behaviors. It turns out that feedback, given correctly, can make a world of difference. Sure, we all need to get better at giving kind and true feedback. But fundamentally we can’t change other people. We can change ourselves. Starting with opening ourselves up to receiving feedback.

Big data irritates our eyes with what we want to believe are meaningless chimeras, but our hearts know otherwise. Now it’s our turn to show big data who is boss. To use the contradictions between what the data shows us to be and what we aspire to be as feedback for improvement.

Ask: Is my daughter a genius?

Let’s use big data to become the people we want to be. When we allow the pure waters of the spring fed brook to reflect back to us our true nature, we are capable of change.


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