We’ve got to a stage in our digital adventure where we’ve reached peak information overload. There isn’t a point in the day where we aren’t thrown a statistic, a graph, an infographic or given a slurry of trends to watch out for.
We are now so bombarded by facts, which often oppose each other, that we are even starting to genuinely believe that facts are relative.
One of the reasons for this shift in how we view truth or facts is there are so many well regarded and official polls that have colossally failed to predict voting patterns. And these predication fails have subsequently managed to be part of the mudslide that tipped the world in a completely different direction, Trump and Brexit being the most obvious.
When experts are giving us facts and the reality doesn’t match up, we naturally start to come the conclusion that fact and opinion is part of the same blurry painting, and that one person’s truth is another person’s fiction.
And this isn’t a fringe belief, it’s starting to become an ingrained and popular mindset which has many experts referring to the current era as ‘post-truth’. We are basically living in a time when a fact can be subjective, and that belief is completely linked to how we view, process and interact with data.
The many brushstrokes
When we think of data we think of figures and that those figures are collected, processed and then churned out to show us what is truly happening at any given time. That could either be how long people are on Facebook every day, how many people believe aliens exist or which type of ketchup people shop for in Tesco.
What is consistently happening though, is that people are using a certain bit of data collection and using that as the whole picture. They use one result to tell a version of the story, but not the whole picture.
When you strip out complexity you run the risk of siloing information which often doesn’t show what is actually happening or what people are truly thinking. Much like how priests used the Latin Bible to pick out their own truths in a time when the general population couldn’t read or understand Latin.
We are now digital awakened, so we think of data as gospel. But the data we are absorbing isn’t as much of an all-seeing truth as we like we think, not because the data is infallible but because we aren’t analysing it in the right way. We are relying far too heavily on the cherry picking of data to tell the whole reality of a situation. And when we cherry pick and don’t look past the data to the human story behind the number we run the danger of misleading an audience or even ourselves in the process.
We are forgetting that behind the data are people, and people aren’t wired like computers, often aren’t that logical or feel inclined to follow a predicted trend graph. Putting the humanity back into how we analyse and process data will ensure that we are more aligned with real thought processes and complex human natures, so we can predict things more accurately.
A great example is writing down everything you eat and drink for a whole month and then collating that data and creating results and insights from it. Some of the results might not make sense or be quite shocking. Say for example your alcohol consumption is a lot higher than the national average for the month and that you actually fall into the category of a binge drinker. But then if you have another look past that one result and go back to the story behind that statistic, the actual truth might be that you like a glass of wine every other night in front of your Netflix binge of the moment.
Raw data doesn’t work or isn’t properly reflected in reality when we don’t analyse what is actually happening behind the scenes, especially when we don’t use context or take into account human nature.
Once upon a time
Many people also think analysing data helps us to be more efficient (which it does) but the reason we all love a good statistic is because it helps us to understand the world and our place in it. Data at its best is useful and relative information which helps us to improve as a person, understand the current status quo and how we relate to one another.
We have started to forget what data truly is. Data is always a means to explaining a story, and we as humans love to communicate and understand ourselves through our stories. When we take out the complexity of life and the many layers of human nature from our data, we lobotomise it and make it float apart from reality. The story behind the data is always what matters.
Data is like music – at its most basic it’s just strings of notes which sit flat and lifeless on a music sheet. But once a musician takes time to find the emotive story of each note and processes it into a melody, the musician breathes life into those numbers and it finally makes sense and relates something to us. The individual notes become part of the entire song.
Giorgia Lupi, Information Designer and Data Humanism advocate, says it best in her Ted Talk:
“To make data faithfully representative of our human nature and to make sure they won’t mislead us anymore we need to design ways to include empathy and imperfection. Use human qualities in the way we collect, view and analyse data. Instead of using data to become more efficient we should start using data to become more humane.”
She even suggests that to bring humanity back into our data the most logical step is to take technology totally out of the question. We should start collecting our own behavioural patterns and using beautifully designed visual graphics to show how we think, feel and behave. We then apply those findings to engineer how our technologies analyse data.
Because technology can’t track our thoughts or intricate moods (yet) it is up to us to put our human spirit into our graphs and figures so that our polls and our predictions finally represent ever-changing global stories, people and viewpoints.
One thing is for sure, once we learn how to combine the power of data and our own human natures, we will create a data culture tour de force. It’s something that the whole technology sector is trying to solve, to be able to combine the best parts of ourselves and our inventions to create emotive and efficient technology.