Friday, May 3, 2013

What's Next?

Future Looking

Often my five-year-old son says to me, “What's next, Dad?; what are we going to do now?” This simple phrase and the thought process behind it is infused with all kinds of meaning; it suggests, at least to me,  how we humans think. We are essentially forward looking, and want to know what the future holds.

We might look to the past for clues, but it’s often a method to find out what we plan to do next. Or in the case of reading history, to learn from the past, its mistakes, and move forward with the idea that we can avoid these human errors—always a difficult endeavour.

Progress, whatever you might think of the word, is as natural for humanity as is breathing and eating. Those that doubt or even fear progress are, to a great degree, doubting the future. Since the future is unknown, the proposition of an unknown future can scare people. Some take comfort in reading accounts of the past, the history of humanity.

Yet, there is a growing interest in what is now called Big Data, which is to collect large amounts of data to come to some kind of view of human trends: In a recent column (“What's You'll Do Next”) in the New York Times, David Brooks explains both its appeal and its limitations:
The theory of big data is to have no theory, at least about human nature. You just gather huge amounts of information, observe the patterns and estimate probabilities about how people will act in the future.
As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier write in their book, “Big Data,” this movement asks us to move from causation to correlation. People using big data are not like novelists, ministers, psychologists, memoirists or gossips, coming up with intuitive narratives to explain the causal chains of why things are happening. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, such human intuiting of causality does not deepen our understanding of the world,” they write.
Instead, they aim to stand back nonjudgmentally and observe linkages: “Correlations are powerful not only because they offer insights, but also because the insights they offer are relatively clear. These insights often get obscured when we bring causality back into the picture.”
The huge collection of data is essentially a collection of individual historical events and the establishment of patterns or trends in human actions; this, however, is not the same as establishing cause and effect, which is far more complicated. History is important; and I have read much history, but it's a logical fallacy to think that history (always) informs the future.  This is deterministic; this is nonsense, of course. As is the idea that current trends will continue indefinitely.

It just takes one event, one disjunction by one human to change the course of history, and then as the saying goes, “all bets are off.” Wars, natural disasters, economic downturns, political instability cannot easily be predicted. Here's why: humans, despite the thinking of mathematicians, analysts and economists, are not the same as machines. Of course, such individuals would like it to be so, heavily invested in their models and theories, blind to human emotions and unpredictably. Sorry to disappoint. Some humans value their individuality and like to confound mathematical models.

More important, humanity has changed course too many times; there are too many factors in how humans arrive at decisions; and the future, despite the claims of mathematical models and “powerful” algorithms. Big Data cannot yet accurately predict the future, although it might hold some narrow use for marketing analysts, retailers and sellers of consumer products for smaller issues of concern, e.g., what kind of consumer products are in vogue, and in what geographical areas are they being purchased. Data points and information are not the same as knowledge.

For the larger, more important socio-economic and political issues that shape society, its use is both limited and over-stated. Without getting into the philosophical arguments of determinism and indeterminism, humans need shape their own destiny without the baggage of too much information.

So, in answer to my son, “Let's find out together what's next.” It might not be so bad; in fact, it might be fun.