In Susan Etlinger’s latest TED Talk, she discusses how big data leads to big societal fears as well as how to understand and manage them.
The talk begins with a reference to Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that cites the dystopian-world views of Orwell and Huxley. For all the good things technology has brought us, we still share some deep fears with Orwell, who foresaw a totalitarian future, and Huxley, who worried that culture would be trivialized by technology. Big data equals Big Brother, in other words.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Susan Etlinger, who is an industry analyst with Altimeter Group, where she concentrates on data analytics and strategy and conducts independent research. Etlinger points out thought-provoking examples of why it’s important to “move past counting things to understanding them” in her TED talk.
Remember those TV ads by the Center for Disease Control that showed a woman smoker with a hole in her throat – disturbing, to say the least. But did they actually influence whether people quit smoking? The answer surprised me.
Etlinger tells a personal story about how her own son, who was diagnosed with autism at age two, taught himself how to communicate when nobody was watching. Her son’s creative problem-solving made the family rethink the familiar metrics of assessments and analytics, and changed their frame of reference for what was happening with him.
This TED talk makes you re-examine big data and how we use it, on so many levels. We can obviously make data mean anything, as Etlinger says. “So as business people, as consumers, as patients, as citizens, we have a responsibility, I think, to spend more time on critical thinking skills,” she says.