Brains vs. Bots

A Guest Post by John Gray, Co-Founder, Mentionmapp

The four characteristics of humanism are curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race. E. M. Forster

We love to set it and forget it; what’s not to like about life on easy street and rolling in easy money; there’s nothing like the open road, the wind rushing through your hair and being on cruise control; we love our easy to program devices; easy just slides off the tongue, and tops our tool-kit of four letter words.

It’s like the realization of Moore’s Law has delivered us to the Cult of Easy’s altar. If we contrast Forster’s sense of humanism with the key four characteristics of a computer; with their speed, accuracy, versatility and storage capacity, it only makes sense that these tools will be our saviour. They’ll save us from work, save us undue effort, save us from thinking, and maybe even save us from ourselves.

As communication professionals, we need to see the Cult of Easy for what it is. On one hand, it’s a massive noise generator, and on the other, it glorifies the tools for managing all of that noise. The Cult’s impact is like an ergot fungus blight infecting a healthy field of wheat. It’s causing hallucinations and distorting realities. The machines, the tools of today like the bots and algorithms are no replacement for our brains. We need to look beyond easy and recognize that no software application can supplant our own curiosity and creativity.

We’re creating, curating, consuming, and confronting a daily tsunami of information. It’s daunting. From all of this information, the data exhaust is being described in terms of exabytes and zetabytes. According to this study,  we’re producing the data equivalent of 530,000,000 millions of songs every day. But looking beyond the big numbers, I think it’s more important to consider what’s relevant to you, your organization, your audience, or your stakeholders. Of course defining what’s relevant, and then discovering it, and then connecting who’s an authority is still complex. Who’s kidding who, it’s hard.

I don’t pine for the good old days of analog, newspaper ink coating my fingertips or watching a DVD. The fact our machines can, and are trained to see patterns both fascinates  and concerns me (by redefining repetitive business tasks = good. Being mechanisms of state surveillance = bad). But, I also don’t believe machines can question revealed patterns. Each of us sees patterns differently. Granted that just because we see differently than machines, and can ask different questions we’re not assured of discovering what’s relevant or meaningful. We’ll always have to navigate our own personal bundles of bias. At least I can question my bias or that of other people’s. Good luck questioning the bias that’s coded into an algorithm you could be banking your company, or your client’s success upon. We sense, we question, we create, whereas machines simply process.

The thrashing machine separates the wheat from the chaff, but it’s the baker who puts the life into what lights up your taste buds. I’m all for computing horsepower trying to help us separate signals from noise. Grinding the life out of information and data is like turning it into ‘Wonder Bread.’ By grinding it too finely we’ll lose its textures. What anomalies or outliers will we miss? Instead, appreciating a taste sensation like ancient grains with their texture and complexity coming to life, important knowledge and information or compelling narratives are distilled into blandness. Likes, views, pins, shares and every other vanity metric don’t tell a relevant or fulfilling story. It’s hard to take meaningful action when the machines give us a report of irrelevance and the blandness of another pie chart or spreadsheet.

Sifting through the noise, managing complex communication environments and platforms are hard work. I also wonder if there’s a tendency to over-complicate business processes or claim to adopt new technologies simply to look like we’re keeping up with the “times.” I’m skeptical about many businesses or organizations needing tools of National Security Organization intelligence and sophistication. If all of this computing horsepower is not discovering would be terrorists, then keeping us in tune with relevant information and conversations is a doubtful proposition as well. Defining, deciding, discovering, and verifying what information matters, why it matters, and how to act on it are still very human things to do.

We’re the curious ones, we innovate, we create, all of which connects us to potential moments of serendipity. As Frans Johansson writes in the Harvard Business Review, “diverse perspectives drive innovation. “ He concludes “serendipity is what sets us apart — since that is the only way we can discover an approach that is not obvious or logical.”

I appreciate Johansson relating the serendipitous story of how “nine months into Google’s existence, Sergei Brin and Larry Page realized they needed to choose between their company and their Ph.D. work at Stanford. They decided to pursue their doctorates and offered their search engine to Yahoo for $1 million. Yahoo declined” Now imagine if Yahoo had bought Google.

We need to think about what we’re asking of our machines versus ourselves. We can, and should care about the questions we’re asking of our information or data; what’s it telling you and why. We can be intellectually honest, machines can’t. Machines aren’t serendipity generators. We can put care into what’s created. The value and magic in what we craft and how we communicate have nothing to do with the tools; it’s all in that moment where imagination meets performance.

John F. Gray (Co-Founder of Mentionmapp)

john-2015John’s life tested, and always curious. BC born and raised, Vancouver’s been home for the last 35 years. He’s been a freelance writer, and was the former West Coast editor @BetaKit. John cares about putting humanity first, and our stories about technology second. He has a Bachelor of Applied Science (Communications) and a B.A. (English) both from Simon Fraser University.