Big Data: Is It Straight Out Of Sci-Fi?

Working on a project about big data, I started thinking how similar it is to psychohistory, the invention of sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.

The idea of psychohistory forms the basis of Foundation (pub. 1951) and continues through the subsequent books in the trilogy: Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation.

The sci-fi definition of psychohistory involves bringing together a huge mass of sociological, psychological, economical and historical data. All this is put through the twin mangles of statistics and mathematics to understand the likely behaviour of large groups of people.

In the Foundation story—bear with me here—psychohistory is applied following an interplanetary war and used to manipulate future events in order to shrink the time spent in a new dark age from 1,000 years to just 100. All hopes for the future of the universe are pinned upon it.

Right now it feels like the marketing world has, in the same way, seized on big data as a universal panacea. By finding patterns of behaviour in the largest possible amount of data, we believe it will enable us to develop more accurate strategies and more effective campaigns. Well, it sounds logical at least.

And yet to my old-school mind, it still feels like a way of passing the buck to research in order to justify decisions. I absolutely agree that research data is essential for informing us about attitudes and buying habits. It is also great for measuring the response to campaigns.

But there are those who will block innovative thinking because big data says “no.” And they can go to their colleagues and their board and their shareholders and say, “It’s not my fault. It’s what research told us.”

This thinking is both lazy and stupid.

Effective advertising is driven by provoking an emotional response. Yes, it’s commercial, but it is also an art. I believe that advertising decisions about creativity should always be based upon instinctive gut-feel.

This approach requires courage. That’s why it is people with good instincts and the nerve to follow them who should always be the ones in charge—both on the agency and client side. When this happens, truly original and groundbreaking work becomes the more likely outcome and the potential rewards are so much greater.

There is a twist to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which I will not spoil here. And there is a twist to big data, too. Basically, who is to say it is right.

We may interpret patterns incorrectly. The actual data may not be accurate to start with. How much data is enough anyway? Even with huge amounts of information, you may still not get the whole story.

And when it comes to judgment, the human brain and human emotion are still by far the best tools. And that’s why the creative directors who help to develop and promote innovate ideas, and the marketing directors who trust huge decisions to their personal response, are where truly effective creativity comes from.

Postcript: There is actually a genuine field of psychohistory, which is the study of motivations of people in historical and current events. But I prefer Asimov’s wonderful, original creation any day!

Phil Pinn is the head of voice at gyro London.