28 Thoughts

True Harmony In Data

Believe it or not, the elementary understanding of the Greek Lyre, one of the first tuned musical instruments, is essential in understanding Greek Philosophy. The basis of many mathematical and scientific findings, thus creating much philosophical discussion, originated from Pythagoras’s experiments with string lengths and bridge positions on the seven- or eight-string Lyre.

Musical notes and their relation to each other are ratios. An octave, generated by doubling a length of a string, is 2:1. Shorten by a third and you get a fifth, expressed as 3:2. The ‘Harmonic Mean’ redefined the general understanding of opposites, to see the benefit in a blend of contradicting elements.

Things started to get (intentionally and experimentally) mixed up. Blended. This discovery of blending, be it high and low notes or wine and water, seemed at the time to be the world’s greatest secret. At this point, Pythagoreans thought the body was strung like an instrument to a certain pitch. Health is to be ‘in tune’ but can be unbalanced if there is too much relaxation or tension of our human string. The ‘tonics’ you buy as remedies from chemists are named from this origin.

Of course, things were not always this complex.

In fact, between the times of Pythagoras and Plato (depending on the material you read), there appeared to be a simple doctrine of a ‘tripartite soul’. Sounds complicated but it really isn’t.

Basically, it was said that people could be of three types:

1. Lovers of gain

2. Lovers of honour

3. Lovers of wisdom

Much categorisation followed this thinking, including the typecasting of guests at the Olympic Games:

1. Those who came to buy and sell (these were seen as the lowest class)

2. Those who came to compete (these were the next above the lowest)

3. Those who came to observe (these were the best class of all)

This simplicity is somewhat appealing but actually, despite the progression of thinking around established subjects, I find that many modern topics follow a similar, basic, compartmentalisation. One modern and lesser-established area that generates typecasts is data mining, social analytics, social media monitoring and/or any other fancy term for what is basically:

A. <em>Taking bucket loads of data and trying to make sense of it Or, if you like:</em>

B. <em>The practice of taking what people post, say, publish or share and displaying it for money</em>

In a similar way to our tripartite soul we have:

1. Those who exploit whatever is possible in terms of data, regardless of consequence

2. Those who bring solutions to market whilst trying to be respectful of the delicacies of using private data

3. Those who wish to watch, listen, learn, and think about the wider meaning of data exploitation

In a commercial world the ability to reside in type 3 is eclipsed by the requirement to pay a rent or mortgage, so realistically we can aspire to be in the 2nd camp, and in this particular piece, I won’t be discussing those of the 1st type.

My point is, without a good measure of the 3rd, we often forego the ability to be respectful of the delicacies when using private data for commercial benefit. In other words, we may try to commercialise in an honourable way, but whilst we do so we are unable to think seriously about the actual meaning of what we do. Due to this, our attempts at being respectful are limited by how busy we are, the CEO’s target, or shareholder expectation.

Often the version of respectfulness leaves a lot to be desired... and even then, quis custodiet ipsos custodes<em>?</em> Who guards the guards? Who verifies that our version of being reasonable is reasonable?

I see numerous tweets from funky-named companies in the field of social data but I wonder about the people (consumer, customers, users, the public) whose information is ultimately paying for the free bar at the VIP reception.

I see fabulously constructed websites but I wonder about the link between the volume of data and what the hell it actually means.

I see brilliantly formed visualisations but I find it hard to reconcile these with actual business strategy. I mean real business strategy not “Facebook page strategy” or “mobile strategy”.

There is seldom any link; other than a retrospective justification of required insight in some vain attempt to validate an already named tactic in search of a strategic objective. There is seldom an efficient implementation; instead many companies are expecting some form of miracle result. The thing is – you can find out who is speaking about you. You can find out whether one platform is more used than another. You can even find out who makes others click on something. Add this to the number of followers they have (with some other cool stuff) and it turns out you have some form of new media credibility.


But without a proper business strategy and an understanding of the psychological ramifications of data exploitation, what you are left with is a bunch of information that may or may not actually mean something. You will be shown things with data that will blow your mind. You will be reading that data is the future... and you will be correct in exploring this path.


I appeal to you to include some type 3. Include more thinking, assign more reflection time, find more reason, and take more learning.

I appeal to you to consider what it really means, over and above what it means to your business.

I appeal to you to determine the non-monetary cost of data to the people who are providing it.

And yes, returning to the analogy, eventually, we may face the music. Just as music extrapolated the simplicity into blends, we may come across deeper meaning in all of this simplistic opportunism. We may look back at the present day and realise we only had a basic understanding of what was really going on.

Perhaps only then will we discover the subtleties and complexities that we currently discuss and exploit without significant due care. Perhaps only then will we start to create things that make a positive difference.

Perhaps only then will we find the true harmony in data.


Taken from 28 Thoughts - see '<a href="https://jonathanmacdonald.com/#books">books</a>' on the menu.