The Tale of the Cargo Cultists and the Analytics Data Collectors
I have a credit card that offers me some incredible features, few of which I know, and none of which I have ever used or needed.
But I was thinking about that card and the other far-too-complicated things I own while reading a piece recently that hit me as being pretty smart about the overwhelming amount of data the online biz creates that, in the end, doesn’t tell you much.
An apparently pretty brilliant fellow named Stijn Debrouwere spoke about this data overload at a meeting in Berlin last month. He’s a Web savvy guy who is a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellow and says he’s “loosely affiliated” with the Guardian newspaper’s data science team in London. His speech is worth reading, a recommendation I don’t often give. But it’s most important part, to me, was his reminder that “metrics only make sense when you’re going to do something with them. If you just have them to have them and don’t use them to gauge your progress in making your Website, your application or your writing better, then you might as well not have them – even if they’re stable metrics that measure the right thing.”
He employed a useful comparison. During World War II, he noted, the United States set up elaborate bases on small islands in the Pacific. The natives were mesmerized.
I’ll pick up his speech from there:
After the war ended in 1945, the Americans sold various of their bits and bobs to the islanders, dumped and destroyed much beside, and then the mighty U.S. army was gone.
The islanders didn’t know how the Americans had procured all of that stuff, and so fast too, but they’d sort of gotten used to it and wanted more. They figured, if the Americans can secure favors from the gods and get precious cargo delivered right to their doorstop, all doing little more than waving their hands at the sky, then so can we.
How hard can it be, said the islanders. All we have to do is copy these funny foreigners in khaki and the cargo will come. So on an island like Tanna you’d have people meticulously maintain air strips and drop zones. They’d put on uniforms and wave around makeshift signal cones, the ones you use to tell a plane where and how to land. Cultists would construct and man communications shacks and talk into radios with nobody at the end of the line. They had gotten a taste of modern technology, medicine and entertainment and they wanted more.
But try as hard as they might, to Tanna the cargo never came.
These “cargo cultists” as they came to be known, just copied. To use a slightly more contemporary line, at a down moment in a song when she was cutting some unknown down to size, Joni Mitchell sang, “You imitate the best and the rest you memorize.”
Ditto, with data, seemingly offered because everybody else does.
I come across lots of info that I’m sure can’t be all that useful, or that one can even comprehend. There is a digital ad firm that boasts it has delivered “eight billion video impressions across all screens.” That’s straightforward enough, I suppose, and also so vastly ambiguous that, to me at least, it’s pointless. It's the modern version of garbage in/garbage out.
I came across the cargo cultist in an article that touches on the same point I’m making here, published by Mathew Ingram on Gigaom a few days ago, but had a slightly different take.
”I like Debrouwere’s analogy, in part because I think the whole phenomenon of cargo cults is fascinating, but for me it misses the mark a little,” he wrote. “Media companies aren’t trying to bring back something they already had by using analytics — it’s more like they were remote villagers hidden in the rain forest who had never seen a ruler or a scale for measuring weight before, and suddenly when the Web came along they were handed these tools and didn’t really know what to do with them. So naturally, they ran around measuring the length and height and weight of everything in sight, without really knowing why.”
Whatever your takeaway, read Debrouwere’s speech. It might make you think for just a moment about what in the world all those stats really mean, and perhaps rethink the wisdom of throwing a wall of Big Data at clients expecting them to be impressed, and getting nothing in return. You might as well rethink that credit card, while you’re at it.