One of the undeniable features of the digital revolution is the “all you can eat and more” buffet of data and information. Whether your pleasure is the slop and gristle of the unedited internet or the oh, so refined subtlety of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary on four CDs for only $99.99, there is something for every palate. We live with the feeling that the answer to every question is out there somewhere in the digital world and if you can’t find it, well, that’s just your problem.
Judgment: The State of the Art
In quieter moments, one can’t help but wonder why the quality of our decision making hasn’t kept pace with the quantity of data and information. Yeah, we’re getting much better at so many things in the digital age. If faced with the choice of having major surgery now or a hundred years ago, I would so much rather be talking to my current friends in the medical community. Would I rather manage my personal finances with today’s tools or live in a pre-ATM/On-line trading world? Well duh. Would I rather carry my 70’s boombox, my 80’s Walkman, or my 00’s iPod? No contest. But a friend of mine in her grumblier moments has been heard to remark that the population is growing but the IQ pool is apparently constant. I’d be inclined to at least consider her perspective.
Didn’t we do the financial scandal thing with the savings and loan industry? Why did we have to repeat it with junk bonds or the Internet bubble? The 60’s had LSD, the 70’s had heroin, the 80’s had cocaine, the 90’s had crack and now I can’t buy Co-advil without a blood sample and a first born child because of Meth. We been swingers, danced disco, done techno, punk’d, grunged, and Lordy knows what else, but it’s still all just rock and roll to someone. We’ve had Watergate, the embassy in Iran, Iran-Contra, Monica’s thong (WAAAAY too much information), and Weapons of Mass Destruction, or maybe not.
I’ll just stop there before we all have to go take long hot showers and then lie down in a dark room with a cool moist rag draped over our eyes.
Why, with all the information tools we have to hand, are we not making better decisions? This is point where we should trot out the usual suspects of information overload, the corrosion of attention span by modern media and the every popular metaphor about drinking from a fire hose. Thanks for coming in guys, but your services won’t be needed today. While your flash and boom are all very entertaining, we’re looking for causes not symptoms today.
From Good Data to Bad Decisions
So, causes. The standard bearer for good judgment in a digital age is good data. Well packaged, easily accessible, comprehensive, it is the holy grail of the digital age. But that only brings us back to the question of why with so much data we’re still making such bone head decisions. If good data is the standard bearer, then automation is the foot soldier, endlessly replicating some predetermined application of good data to the mundane decisions that make up daily life.
It is almost irresistible to try and drive the obvious benefits of automation up the decision making hierarchy. It seems logical to apply the same methods that help us spot early indicators of a falling market, or find the cheapest price for those Jimmy Choo shoe knock offs to, oh say, finding a perfect business partner or employee. We might, however, want to take at least one deep breath before we assume what works for deciding where to buy toothpaste will also work for deeper decisions like business strategies that affect millions of people, or life choices that affect only one or two of us very deeply. The siren song of easy digital replication does not encourage that deep breath, but we must take it.
Dusting Off Analog Judgment
Digital doesn’t have a lock on bad decisions. Analog has all kinds of pitfalls for judgment and decision making. They include all the supposed saving graces of moving to digital such as not having enough information, being too time constrained, and plain old personal bias. Case studies abound, but perhaps one of the most striking is the decision making process of Saddam Hussien just prior the U.S. invasion. In the journal “Foreign Policy” there is a fascinating account of how terrified his subordinates were to deliver information that was anything less than glowingly positive. The end result was that Mr. Hussein had a completely unrealistic picture of his armed forces’ capabilities and performance even as Baghdad was crumbling around him. If ever there was an argument for the purported unbiased, unedited world of digital data collection, that was it. So, if anything, the analog world requires us to pay much closer attention to the dynamics of judgment to get a good result.
Our challenge, as we dive into the digital side of the information buffet, is not to improve judgment. There’s ample opportunity for that. The challenge, as we pick up knife and fork, is to remember that judgment is still required, to recall that digital data is shaped by a collection bias and by significant in-stream editing. To take the analogy to a less than appetizing conclusion, digital doesn’t mean decisions and judgment come to our plates predigested. The analog lesson that good judgment requires our attention and time carries intact to the digital side. Good data does not necessarily equal good judgment.
In the analog world, good judgment is a very contingent thing. It depends on so many factors, so many inputs, so many variables that only a fool would take it for granted. The very nature of analog pressures us to be aware of what we do not know, to feel our limitations even if we can not speak of them. Whether in the esoteric world of wine or fashion or the more concrete worlds of business and daily life, we can’t help but encounter elements beyond our control or knowing. We are constantly surprised, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes otherwise. Either way though, that element of surprise, of discovery and of adaptation is a central part of our human experience.
Why Not Pure Digital?
It’s not surprising that we might want to retreat from all that analog variability and consequent uncertainty into a digitally ordered world of data. The problem is that despite our fondest wishes, data is only reality once removed. We can collect all the descriptions, characteristics, definitions and attributes we want to, but getting a good result still requires awareness of context, feel for inter-relationships, and understanding of meaning. To act appropriately on what digital sets in front of us, we have to have a feel for what’s been left out and how the presentation shapes our attention and focus. Without that element of judgment we risk becoming like Mr. Hussein, trapped in our own little tyranny of delusion. No matter how high we stack our plates with steaming piles of data, that feast still won’t replace the need for common judgment.
As we become more and more capable in the digital world, it is so tempting to hope that we can eliminate the messiness that comes with the need for judgment. The conundrum is that the very essence of digital, being finite and discrete, will always require judgment to bridge the distance between the bits and bytes. All the work of collecting data isn’t the same work required in the moment of decision, the act of making a choice between A and B and C. If we consume all our calories in data, we’ll find judgment starved and undernourished at the moment of decision, when we need it most. For all it’s failures and limitations, analog forces us to exercise our judgment, to feed it, nourish it.
We have no choice but to live out our lives and our professions in the analog world. We are creatures of uninterrupted and uncompressible time, of sensation, and of impression. That is, of course, both our glory and our misery as we live in a world of constant interruptions and compression, of real consequences for decisions based on too little data, and of those wonderful moments when despite every compromise and shortfall, things just come together.
We live an analog life, but we sometimes choose to act digitally, consciously collecting, editing, and shuffling representations of the world on the way making one choice or another. The challenge is being able to distinguish, in the moment, those times when acting digitally is adequate from those times when we must set ourselves out into the currents of the world and let them carry us to where we want to be.