Monday, June 12, 2017

Sensemaking: the power of the humanities in the age of the algorithm - book overview

Worked through a short book last weekend, which was wet and non-conducive to outdoor activities of any kind.

The book, by Christian Madsbjerg, is published in 2017.

The main argument of the book cautions on relying too much using quantifiable data to make decisions for solving complex problems. There is a need to ensure humans retain their uniqueness and ability to draw on tacit knowledge, acquired across life experiences. Machines, artificial intelligences and robots do not have the biologically sourced ability to tap into individuals’ idiosyncratically acquired knowledge, to make decisions requiring creativity and insight.

Some parts of this book do not quite work and most of the argument is well laid out and sound. Madsbjerg heads ReD Associates, a strategy consulting company which uses social researchers (anthropologists, sociologists, art historians and philosophers) to assist corporates to attain better attuned information to eventually improve their company’s reach. There is some irony in this.
Humans’ sensemaking is not just based on quantitative data. We are embodied beings. We collect, collate, evaluate and act on multi-modal inputs. All of these, end up being drawn on when we intuit insights which are sometimes at odds with what quantitative data recommends.

The five principles of sense making are detailed:
Culture – not individuals – focuses on the need to understand the socio- historical -political arena we live in. So consumer surveys based on surveys of individuals, requires reading within the larger social framework various consumers spent their lives in.
Thick data – not just thin data – uses George Soros, at the time of the early 1990s as a case study to unpack the need for data beyond what is provided by formal means. That is, the data coming from individual’s life experiences combined with collaborations with each other. Therefore, the socio-cultural. Understanding not only the numbers, but how the individuals who make decisions (politicians, bureaucrats etc.) make decisions which in turn affect entire country and world economies.
The savannah – not the zoo – again brings in the need to see the big picture beyond data streams. Heidigger’s concept of ‘being in the world’ is used as the main framework in this chapter to explain the importance of a thing and understanding its position in the world.
Creativity – not manufacturing – encourages the need to not just make something for its own sake, but to make it well. In essence, this chapter argues for the need to adopt precepts of craftsmanship, although the word ‘craftsmanship’ is not used. In particular, this chapter critiques the move in many corporations to ‘design thinking’.
The North Star – not the GPS - uses three stories to support the need for human input into meeting complex goals. How a facilitator draws on her finely honed EQ to get the most out of participants when they are in workshops to improve their ‘managing’. The need of a negotiator who works in international hostage crisis to understand deeply, the ethos and culture of his adversaries. The embodied understanding of a winemaker, at one with the terroir, working towards making the best wine from the grapes she grows.

Overall, the book advocates for the need to better appreciate what humans bring to the world. Machines are constructed and developed by humans. They should be tools, not oracles. Education, especially a humanities-based education, assists humans to better understand the diversity, complexity and challenges inherent in our world. Technological innovations require balancing with the needs of humanity. Our lives maybe enriched and enhanced by technological tools, but in the end, humans are here to make a difference - not all of which can be measurable.

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