Monday, August 26, 2013

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier

So here’s my favorite quote from Big Data - from an interview with Mike Flowers, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ‘director of analytics’:

You know, we have real problems to solve. I can’t dick around, frankly, thinking about other things like causality right now.

We find ourselves in a new world, argue Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier. No longer need we grapple with the world by spinning theories and using them to make predictions. We now have Big Data and Big Data will speak to us, gifting us with insights that were never before accessible.

By Big Data, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier refer to the vastly greater amount of collected and stored data around us. Big Data also reflect a new economics - where the costs to acquire, store and manipulate data are increasingly negligible. Big Data is often collected mindlessly and incessantly: our continuous GPS coordinates, our Google searches.

Big Data presents new opportunities for prediction. Old prediction involved the collection of precise sample data, which would then be fitted into a theory. Theory was developed under causal lines - data confirmed theory and reflected a link between cause and result. If we collect data showing a large number of people diagnosed with the flu, we may infer the presence of an epidemic. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be by Moisés Naím

Moisés Naím sees the decline of power across many institutions. He is at times wistful, at times celebratory in his reaction to power’s decay. But he isn’t entirely clear why we should care about the passing of power. The powerful do care; Naím has many powerful friends who lament power’s loss of magic. Popes, pols and pundits just don’t get the respect their predecessors received; their authority is more circumscribed, more readily challenged (the same decline is noted by law professors). But for the greater number of us, who are in more settings objects of the power of others than detainers of power, the end of power is not a self-evident cause for concern.

A decline in social organization is a cause for concern – and to the degree the phenomena described in The End of Power signal a loss of capacity for coordination, Naím’s book is more than an indulgence of ambivalent nostalgia. Naím is careful with his definition of power: power is the ability of some few - the powerful - to direct the actions of others. And, he asserts, there are four means by which power is exerted: muscle (force), code (tradition), pitch (persuasion), and reward (incentive).

Naím is a superachiever who has spent his life at or close to the top. He was a prominent politician in Venezuela – and since has become a heralded writer in the United States. As such, his personal prescription, given toward the end of The End of Power, is quite surprising. Get off the elevator, Naím urges. And by this he calls for an abandonment of mindless ambition and more; elevator thinking is the focus on rank and hierarchy, which promotes power as an end in itself.