Data, data, everywhere: we’re drowning in it

We are drowning in data. We create more of it daily—so much it seems impossible we’ll ever make sense of it.

Data—or, as it was known back in the 20th century, “paperwork”—has been a challenge for decades. As Frank Zappa wrote in 1989:

“It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.”

Data: the horse manure of the 21st century?

One of the most memorable stories in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner Freaknomics revolves around a seemingly insoluble problem of 19th century urban life. As traffic increased, so did the emissions generated by vehicles. But since the vehicles in question derived their horsepower from, well…horses, the emission in question was manure. Tons of it.

Cities struggled to keep their streets navigable. Pedestrians crossed at their own risk. Civic leaders despaired of handling the exponential growth of excrement as the population increased and commerce flourished.

In one sense, horse manure was the 19th century equivalent of our data problem
Henry Ford and his Quadricycle, 1896

No one saw the solution on the horizon. No one, that is, except Henry Ford. His gasoline-powered “horseless carriage”—he called it a “Quadricycle”—produced a different kind of emission.

The proliferation of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines solved the horse manure problem. Of course, it created new problems whose effects we’re dealing with today. But that’s beyond the scope of this blog.

Now obviously it’s an imperfect analogy. Data is much easier to brush off the sole of your shoe, should you step it in. Also it doesn’t stink, not even in the heat of summer.

Does data proliferation matter?

As Moore’s Law predicted more than half a century ago, ever-smaller devices now store ever-greater amounts of data. But what’s the point? Sometimes I wonder if companies aren’t collecting data for the same reason British mountaineer George Mallory pursued his passion.

In 1923, before he returned for his third and final trip to Mt. Everest, a journalist asked him, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” Mallory’s admirably terse reply:

“Because it’s there.”

It’s worth noting that the 1924 trip was Mallory’s final visit to Everest not because he reached the summit, but because he died trying.

As a writer, I worry about the role I play—admittedly a small one—in the increasing amount of data bombarding our world. These bits and bytes assembling themselves into daily blog posts add to the world’s data stockpile. So does everything you’ll write today, and into the foreseeable future.

Every PowerPoint presentation, every white paper, every boring employee newsletter (and the few interesting ones, too)—every communication we produce gets socked away into the digital storage bin. So let’s make those words count, shall we? Let’s produce good work. Work worth reading.

That’s our Everest; I climb it daily. Come join me.

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