Big Data: Knowledge Vs. Beauty?
Many people think it’s one or the other:
Knowledge vs. Beauty, Science vs. Aesthetics, Analytics vs. Creativity.
But such struggles don’t exist – unless we let them.
Set to beautiful illustrations by Fraser Davidson in the video above, Feynman speaks of how an artist friend of his questions his ability, as a scientist, to view a flower as beautiful. The artist argues how Feynman is built to take it apart and make it dull.
Feynman counters that his scientific knowledge only adds to his excitement, evoking interesting questions of structure, evolution, and attraction that add to the mystery and beauty…not subtract.
To me, this essential argument seems to exist at the forefront of our industry today. Design and science intermingle in ways that we couldn’t have imagined years ago, mostly due to a certain buzzword:
Not only can we tell a story from an immense, immense amount of big data, but we can also make it look pretty damn cool.
I’m reminded of a TEDx talk that I watched recently – revealing my nerdiness – from Jer Thorp, data artist-in-residence at The New York Times. Not only is the Canuck’s work incredibly unique and innovative, it’s also remarkable in its achievement:
Telling human stories.
Further illustrating this point out-loud, here’s David McCandless with more from TED on the beauty of data visualization:
From depictions of an entire year’s news cycle – from the World Trade Center Memorial project to a Twitter-based project, Just Landed – social networks are being used as a model for understanding how people move.
These all occupy a somewhat gray area at the intersection of science, art, and design.
The most interesting piece with application to our industry is Project Cascade, a partnership with Mark Hansen that seeks to understand how content is shared from Person A to Person B and so on – with the idea of “constructing a detailed picture of how information propagates through the social media space.”
What becomes evident through all of these projects is that it isn’t just about big data for big data’s sake; it’s about the data that is analyzed and dissected ultimately boiling down to a human story that we’re supposed to tell.
To look at it from a cold, Newtonian perspective is to do the data a disservice.
Perhaps it’s because I spent my Christmas break cuddled up with my new bible, Truth, Lies and Advertising, but the idea of Science vs. X is quite salient for me lately. The fact that so many people have misconceptions about the black and white nature of science – and take those misconceptions and apply them to advertising by way of misguided analytics – is mind-boggling to me.
“Science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles.”
Similarly, Einstein noted that in his own work, fantasy and intuition had been more important than his limited talent for absorbing knowledge.
So the idea that analytics – or research, as Steel puts it – can be used as an excuse to distance or even exclude consumers, rather than recognizing the inherently complex, emotional, and above all, relational nature of those consumers is one that is terribly disappointing to me.
That’s just a little emotional, isn’t it?
Well, I’m kind of a data nerd.
I adored Michael Lewis’ portrait of Billy Beane and, more importantly, sabermetrics in Moneyball. I’ve written on Moneyball’s application to media and advertising on my own blog. I worked as a valuation analyst at a sponsorship agency. I’m also greatly enjoying my thesis research on consumer behavior and brand relationships.
So yes, I find the misappropriation of data – when it can, if used properly, be a guiding tool for building those complex, emotional relationships – to be disappointing.
As an aspiring planner who seeks to straddle the line between analytical and conceptual, I can only hope that we continually become more and more able to apply data to the kind of humanity, flexibility, and respect for relationships that Jon Steel proposes – rather than rely on it in a cold, calculated fashion.
There’s much to be said about knowledge.
And about beauty.
The first thing that I’ll say?
They don’t have to be talked about in separate conversations.
- by AWSC
- posted at 1:24 pm
- January 18, 2013