Tricia Wang – Technology ethnographer
In ancient Greece, when anyone from slaves to soldiers, poets and politicians, needed to make a big decision on life’s most important questions, like, “Should I get married?” or “Should we embark on this voyage?” or “Should our army advance into this territory?” they all consulted the oracle.
So this is how it worked: you would bring her a question and you would get on your knees, and then she would go into this trance. It would take a couple of days, and then eventually she would come out of it, giving you her predictions as your answer.
From the oracle bones of ancient China to ancient Greece to Mayan calendars, people have craved for prophecy in order to find out what’s going to happen next. And that’s because we all want to make the right decision. We don’t want to miss something. The future is scary, so it’s much nicer knowing that we can make a decision with some assurance of the outcome.
Well, we have a new oracle, and its name is big data, or we call it “Watson” or “deep learning” or “neural net.” And these are the kinds of questions we ask of our oracle now, like, “What’s the most efficient way to ship these phones from China to Sweden?” Or, “What are the odds of my child being born with a genetic disorder?” Or, “What are the sales volume we can predict for this product?”
I have a dog. Her name is Elle, and she hates the rain. And I have tried everything to untrain her. But because I have failed at this, I also have to consult an oracle, called Dark Sky, every time before we go on a walk, for very accurate weather predictions in the next 10 minutes. She’s so sweet. So because of all of this, our oracle is a $122 billion industry.
Now, despite the size of this industry, the returns are surprisingly low. Investing in big data is easy, but using it is hard. Over 73% of big data projects aren’t even profitable, and I have executives coming up to me saying, “We’re experiencing the same thing. We invested in some big data system, and our employees aren’t making better decisions. And they’re certainly not coming up with more breakthrough ideas.”
So this is all really interesting to me, because I’m a technology ethnographer. I study and I advise companies on the patterns of how people use technology, and one of my interest areas is data. So why is having more data not helping us make better decisions, especially for companies who have all these resources to invest in these big data systems? Why isn’t it getting any easier for them?
So, I’ve witnessed the struggle firsthand. In 2009, I started a research position with Nokia. And at the time, Nokia was one of the largest cell phone companies in the world, dominating emerging markets like China, Mexico and India — all places where I had done a lot of research on how low-income people use technology. And I spent a lot of extra time in China getting to know the informal economy. So I did things like working as a street vendor selling dumplings to construction workers. Or I did fieldwork, spending nights and days in internet cafés, hanging out with Chinese youth, so I could understand how they were using games and mobile phones and using it between moving from the rural areas to the cities.
Through all of this qualitative evidence that I was gathering, I was starting to see so clearly that a big change was about to happen among low-income Chinese people. Even though they were surrounded by advertisements for luxury products like fancy toilets — who wouldn’t want one? — and apartments and cars, through my conversations with them, I found out that the ads that actually enticed them the most were the ones for iPhones, promising them this entry into this high-tech life. And even when I was living with them in urban slums like this one, I saw people investing over half of their monthly income into buying a phone, and increasingly, they were “shanzhai,” which are affordable knock-offs of iPhones and other brands. They’re very usable. Does the job.
And after years of living with migrants and working with them and just really doing everything that they were doing, I started piecing all these data points together — from the things that seem random, like me selling dumplings, to the things that were more obvious, like tracking how much they were spending on their cell phone bills. And I was able to create this much more holistic picture of what was happening. And that’s when I started to realize that even the poorest in China would want a smartphone, and that they would do almost anything to get their hands on one.
You have to keep in mind, iPhones had just come out, it was 2009, so this was, like, eight years ago, and Androids had just started looking like iPhones. And a lot of very smart and realistic people said, “Those smartphones — that’s just a fad. Who wants to carry around these heavy things where batteries drain quickly and they break every time you drop them?” But I had a lot of data, and I was very confident about my insights, so I was very excited to share them with Nokia.
But Nokia was not convinced, because it wasn’t big data. They said, “We have millions of data points, and we don’t see any indicators of anyone wanting to buy a smartphone, and your data set of 100, as diverse as it is, is too weak for us to even take seriously.”
And I said, “Nokia, you’re right. Of course you wouldn’t see this, because you’re sending out surveys assuming that people don’t know what a smartphone is, so of course you’re not going to get any data back about people wanting to buy a smartphone in two years. Your surveys, your methods have been designed to optimize an existing business model, and I’m looking at these emergent human dynamics that haven’t happened yet. We’re looking outside of market dynamics so that we can get ahead of it.” Well, you know what happened to Nokia? Their business fell off a cliff. This — this is the cost of missing something. It was unfathomable.
But Nokia’s not alone. I see organizations throwing out data all the time because it didn’t come from a quant model or it doesn’t fit in one. But it’s not big data’s fault. It’s the way we use big data; it’s our responsibility. Big data’s reputation for success comes from quantifying very specific environments, like electricity power grids or delivery logistics or genetic code, when we’re quantifying in systems that are more or less contained.
But not all systems are as neatly contained. When you’re quantifying and systems are more dynamic, especially systems that involve human beings, forces are complex and unpredictable, and these are things that we don’t know how to model so well. Once you predict something about human behavior, new factors emerge, because conditions are constantly changing. That’s why it’s a never-ending cycle. You think you know something, and then something unknown enters the picture. And that’s why just relying on big data alone increases the chance that we’ll miss something, while giving us this illusion that we already know everything.