The Laugh-In Effect of Big Data

Although I am an advocate for data science and big data done right, lately I have been sounding the Anti-Hype Horn with blog posts offering a contrarian’s view of unstructured data, forewarning you about the flying monkeys of big data, cautioning you against performing Cargo Cult Data Science, and inviting you to ponder the perils of the Infinite Inbox.

The hype of big data has resulted in a lot of people and vendors extolling its virtues with stories about how Internet companies, political campaigns, and new technologies have profited, or otherwise benefited, from big data.  These stories are served up as alleged business cases for investing in big data and data science.  Although some of these stories are fluff pieces, many of them accurately, and in some cases comprehensively, describe a real-world application of big data and data science.  However, these messages most often lack a critically important component — applicability to your specific business.  In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath explained that “an accurate but useless idea is still useless.  If a message can’t be used to make predictions or decisions, it is without value, no matter how accurate or comprehensive it is.”

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was an American sketch comedy television series, which aired from 1968 to 1973.  One of the recurring characters portrayed by Arte Johnson was Wolfgang the German soldier, who would often comment on the previous comedy sketch by saying (in a heavy and long-drawn-out German accent): “Very interesting . . . but stupid!”

From now on whenever someone shares another interesting story masquerading as a solid business case for big data that lacks any applicability beyond the specific scenario in the story, a common phenomenon I call The Laugh-In Effect of Big Data, my unapologetic response will resoundingly be: “Very interesting . . . but stupid!”


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