Too Much Big Data, Too Few Big Ideas

A significant portion of the world’s knowledge is online and accessible to just about anyone with a web browser and internet connection. But as one author argues, all these noisy “Big Data” haystacks don’t translate into much signal, especially in terms of conceptualizing the next big idea.

Courtesy of Flickr. By Klearchos Kapoutsis
Courtesy of Flickr. By Klearchos Kapoutsis

With the “Big Data” deluge showing no signs of abating, information overload is the norm. In fact, this “information glut” suggests a larger problem. We’re suffering from information overload at the expense of free thinking and development of new big ideas. That’s the sentiment behind Neal Gabler’s “The Elusive Big Idea”.  The substance of Gabler’s argument is that in an era of Big Data, we know more than we’ve ever known, but think about it less.

That’s because the brain – while a wonderful processing engine – just can’t keep up with the data deluge. There’s simply too much to know and too little time to ponder.

Most of us are just flat out busy with work, family, friends and life’s little and larger troubles. This is why time saving devices are the rage. RSS news readers, while not as popular as in the past, are still a valuable tool to sort through the overindulgence of user generated content. And without our smartphone calendar reminders telling us where to be and when, most of us would be in a constant state of perspiration, realizing that we’re probably missing out on something, somewhere.

And yet we keep piling it on. Waiting in line to order lunch? Better check on what my friends are doing on Facebook. Need to wait five minutes for that sandwich to be made? Great, now there’s plenty of time to see what’s trending on Yahoo news. With our information addictions, it does appear, like the Pogo quotation so aptly illustrates, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Neal Gabler has a tough assessment for today’s westernized citizen. He says we prefer “knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value.”

Now if this “knowing” translated into something profound, we might be able to justify our information addiction. However, Gabler says our brains are now trained on trivial personal information such as; ‘Where am I going?”, “What are you doing?” or “Whom are you seeing?” And all in 140 characters or less.

With a focus on daily minutiae, it does appear we’re losing capacity for “the big idea”. That’s why attempts at freeing us from our daily inboxes—such as Google’s Free Time are inspiring.  At least there’s an attempt to galvanize thinking, and hopefully ideas will percolate into business value down the road.

Big Data technologies can save us time by sifting through mountains of multi-structured data.  But even then, while technology may help us recognize and match patterns better, or understand links and relationships with more clarity, there are abstract ideas and concepts that can only be tackled with the human mind.

There are many complex and global problems to think about, we just need to free up our minds from the daily clutter to engage them.

A good first step is a quiet room, free of electronics, and some down-time. See if you can stand the silence for more than ten minutes. Keep increasing that time if possible, for the world surely needs more thinking and less menial knowing and doing.

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5 comments

  1. I completely agree with you. Recently, I have begun reducing the amount of things I read and watch to learn. I am planning to create a more formal self-teach lesson plan for myself soon by reducing emails, subscriptions, and books so I can focus on items that I value and am passionate about. As to your last paragraph, I suggest meditation.

    • Jonathan, As you said, you actually have to make time for thinking, and that’s really hard isn’t it, especially with the swirl of daily life. It takes a real disciplined approach!

  2. So true. My family has a no device policy for the dinner table. We found that we would get together and everyone would be on their device (phone, ipad, etc) and we wouldn’t actually be pending time together because we were too worried about what other were doing. I have also limited my research on things to buy to 3 sites. Otherwise, I could spend hours researching which book to read next and never read a single book!

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