Smarty Pants Book Club: Big data & busy brains

May 06, 2014

At Design Concepts, curiosity and a love of reading binds the team together. Our Smarty Pants Book Club recently met to discuss Big Data and Information Processing. The books we chose focused on the implications of our ever increasing access to information.

Open Design Now, ed. Bas van Abel et al

This collection of essays explores how the tradition of open access in software development and academic research might be applied to design. We discussed the challenge of participating in this movement without devaluing oneself as a designer. Sharing tools, techniques and plans can be a way to meaningfully engage with end users of a product.

There is also an exciting meta-opportunity to design the experience of designing. For example, Instagram provides tools and technologies previously available only to professionals. Anyone with a smart phone can Instagram, yet professional photographers still exist. Democratizing the art of photography did not eliminate the artist from the equation.

It follows that a similar revolution in design will net the same result. Designers will still be valuable because they can create something that you couldn’t create yourself. A high tide raises all ships and we concluded that increased access to design on a wide scale will ultimately result in new and innovative work by all.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle is a “Google-like” fictional corporation in the near future that manages all aspects of your digital life. Everything is filtered through one portal–True You. To get an account you must provide real (biometric) data about yourself, taking anonymity completely out of the equation. What starts out as a well-intentioned endeavor–providing cultural storage and safety to communities — quickly becomes sinister when it reaches a critical mass. There’s no way to opt out and no way to control access to your information.

What are the implications of privacy and security when we design towards an internet where personal data flows freely between objects? We don’t want to be Luddites, but caution and thoughtfulness is necessary. We’re not yet sure how to strike the right balance. Dystopian fiction is great at setting up thought experiments and increasing awareness of our current spot in a potential chain of events.

Anyone with a smart phone can Instagram, yet professional photographers still exist. Democratizing the art of photography did not eliminate the artist.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

In “Thinking Fast and Slow” we learned that the human brain has two systems: System 1 is for making fast, automatic decisions and System 2 is slower, deeper, and requires more effort and fuel to operate. System 1 is the default — our brains don’t want to work harder than they need to. System 1 makes suggestions and System 2 gives endorsements.

Given this understanding of brain function, we discussed ways to plan research, conduct meetings, and organize presentations to purposefully engage different Systems at different times. Framing questions as neutrally as possible might prevent System 1 from jumping in when System 2’s answer is what we want. In meetings, jumping back and forth between Systems can be an energy saver. Trying to spend all day in System 2 can be exhausting, and there’s only so much candy available in the world to keep energy up.

In short, brains are easily overwhelmed. More data does not always lead to better decisions, so careful presentation of information is key. The less work the brain needs to do to consume information, the more energy is left to actually think about it.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

The title of this book is an electrical engineering reference – the signal conveys information and the noise is unwanted, meaningless addition. Silver argues that the commitment to pursuing truth, or finding the signal in the midst of noise, is at the heart of data-driven innovation. A common reason why predictions go wrong, such as in the financial meltdown that followed the burst of the housing bubble in 2007, is that people mistake uncertainty for risk. A risk is a known gamble, whereas uncertainty is hard or impossible to measure. Data and experience combined allow a person the best chance of assessing whether a prediction is based on calculated risk rather than an uncertain set of criteria.

Baseball is a great example of an industry that embraces new as well as traditional traditions of assessment. Statistical analysis is remarkably accurate at predicting player success, as anyone who has seen or read “Moneyball” knows. But the value of a scout who goes out and meets a player, understands his background, and builds upon his own body of knowledge can’t be replaced with a spreadsheet. By mixing methods and gaining a full picture of a player, teams have the best chance for putting together a winning lineup.

Innovation requires prediction so it is our responsibility to constantly improve our skill and accuracy as predictors.

— Written by Leah Ujda