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Obliteration or Enrichment?

15 July 2014

Jeremy Bullmore muses on the Big Data debate

I’ve come to the conclusion that the most valuable contribution made by pioneers, enthusiasts, zealots, fanatics and evangelists is not the intrinsic merit of the innovations they so relentlessly champion but more the fact that they are invariably wrong.

Or to put it rather more charitably: they’re not entirely wrong – they’re just wrong in the scale of the revolutions they so confidently forecast.

A history of innovation suggests that new entrants seldom totally supersede the incumbents. A hundred years after the introduction of motorised transport, who would have put money on the bicycle enjoying its best ever period of popularity?

But the exaggeration, the hyperbole, the unbridled enthusiasm with which new ideas are heralded serve a valuable purpose: not despite being inaccurate but precisely because they are.

For change to take place, the established order must feel the first faint stirrings of unease. The prospect of obliteration must at the very least be entertained. Old ways of doing things need to be re-examined with new eyes. If you’re going to defend your position against some over-confident upstart, you’d better give your own act a ruthlessly rigorous quality check.

Like others, I’ve been an absorbed observer of the Big Data debate. While never fully understanding it – not least because ‘it’ seemed to have so many different definitions and capabilities thrust upon it – the sheer evangelism of its proponents made me think; and the apparent absurdity of some of their claims made me think even harder. I found it difficult to believe that something called Big Data would render all existing forms of research instantly obsolete.

What will happen, I predict (but not with the hyperactive confidence of its proponents) is that the addition of Big Data will greatly enrich the nature and sensitivity of the available knowledge on which people in our business have to make huge and expensive decisions. And that the never-entirely-credible threat of world domination will have served as a salutary wake-up call to everyone in the business.