In a word, 2012 has been about data, in particular, getting data right.
The Presidential election trained the spotlight on Big Data analytics and polling precision. Unemployment data roiled politics and policies. Apple Maps proved that data make the app, or un-make it, as the case may be. Data un-make the athlete, too, as Lance Armstrong discovered when the data hit the fan. Superstorm Sandy resuscitated the data debate on climate change; Newtown, CT did the same for gun control. The unearthing of a missing piece of Mayan calendar proved data spoiler to apocalypse party plans. Encyclopedia Britannica announced that, henceforth, its compendium of data would no longer be available in print. And those were just the highlights.
Data is also a theme running through many of the best books of 2012. In a variety of ways, these half-dozen year-end book recommendations underline the critical importance to brand marketing of anything to do with data.
The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything WeKnow Has an Expiration Date by Samuel Arbesman.
Author Sam Arbesman is an applied mathematician who applies some mathematics alongside a good bit of historical research to document example after example of facts once regarded as certainties that are known now to be false or tenuous. The math is the predictable rate at which facts become obsolete or lose value. The history is his storytelling about the rise and fall of numerous facts, both vital and trifling, across many fields of knowledge.
As one illustration of his point, Arbesman repeats an apocryphal story about a decimal point misplaced in transcription by 19th century researchers that led to the erroneous belief that spinach is a good source of iron. But this decimal-point story turns out to be urban legend itself. The spinach error was due to poor measurement not poor transcription. Unfortunately, this was learned only after Arbesman’s book had been published. But at his Wired blog, Arbesman called this post-publication discovery “exciting” because it is further proof of his central thesis.
Whether it’s mistakes or better measurement or new theory or technology advances or even outright fraud, facts are not fixed; they are constantly in flux. Knowledge is less what we know and more how we learn, a corollary of which is an embrace of “experimental culture” as outlined in one of 2011’s best books, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford. Brand marketers rely heavily on rules-of-thumb, or heuristics, that are taken for granted as established truths. Arbesman’s book is a cautionary reminder to the contrary.
The big winner of the 2012 election was not Barack Obama. It was New York Times’ political blogger Nate Silver, who was the center of much controversy for the long odds he gave throughout the election cycle to Mitt Romney’s chances of winning. In the end, Silver had a clean sweep – 50 of 50 states plus the District of Columbia. However, he had already established his quantitative bona fides, first with a Moneyball-style baseball model he developed and sold, and later by accurately calling 49 of 50 states in the 2008 election along with 35 of 35 Senate races. His 2008 success earned him this book deal to explain what goes on behind the forecasting curtain.
The case Silver makes for hypothesis testing as the only way to properly test and refine our beliefs echoes the standard scientific view of knowledge-building, an approach to learning no less applicable to brand marketing. He opens with examples of flawed predictions, ranging from the recent financial crisis to baseball to political elections to the weather to earthquakes to pandemics. He closes with examples of sound predictions and then extends the principles at work in these to the big issues of our time – climate change, terrorism and financial bubbles. These principles apply equally well to brand marketing.
Silver’s book is a good companion read to another of 2011’s best books, Everythingis Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer – How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan Watts. Both Silver and Watts worry about the ways in which gut-feel and rules-of-thumb lead us astray. Both offer practical guidance for tighter thinking and better predictions of what’s to come.
Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in aNetworked Age by Steven Johnson.
Johnson has built his career as an unabashed champion of contemporary digital culture, debunking critics and promoting the nurture of ideas and innovation. He goes the next step in this book with an examination of the ways in which digital sophistication and imaginative reinvention are transforming everything. Decentralized peer networks that channel and harness the flow of data are remaking government, education, railways, community infrastructure and more.
Johnson is focused on the greater social good but what he describes matters just as much for brand marketing. The same peer networks are reshaping both. The engagement with data is the same. The upending of top-down power structures is the central dynamic in each. Plus, Johnson is optimistic and hopeful, a noteworthy contrast to the many downbeat views popular nowadays. Internet disruption and economic turmoil have left many marketers with a self-fulfilling pessimism. Johnson’s expectation of promise and potential offers a constructive counterpoint and a source of inspiration.
What makes Johnson’s outlook most refreshing is his vision of a future driven more by the micro-forces of collaborative individuals than the macro-forces of globalization. Indeed, many observers have taken issue with the poorly examined assumptions of a macro view, such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spence in The Next Convergence: The Future of EconomicGrowth in a Multi-Speed World, yet another of 2011’s best books. The problem Spence identifies in the presumption that the BRICs will rule the world is that few developing countries have ever accomplished the difficult middle-income transition, moving from export-driven, cheap-labor emerging economies to consumption-driven, skilled labor developed economies. Whether the BRICs can muster the political will and financial wherewithal to do so is yet to be determined. In the meantime, brand marketers will see more immediate opportunities in Johnson’s chronicle of the fast-moving, bottom-up overhauling of markets by data-savvy networked groups tackling lifestyle needs and neighborhood problems.
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of theInternet by Andrew Blum.
The paradox of the Internet is that little about it is virtual. In fact, it is a massive network of physical plant consisting of huge server farms, mile after mile of fiber optic cable and mountains of hardware. Journalist Andrew Blum takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of this rarely seen and even more rarely contemplated nether world of digital plumbing that keeps the torrent of data flowing. There are no brand marketing lessons per se to be learned here. It’s just an absorbing reminder that everything virtual is physical, too, especially, one might add reflectively after reading this book, customers.
The Little Book of Big Data, 2012 Edition by Noreen Burlingame.
The term Big Data gets thrown around a lot, but what it actually means is less well understood. Big Data is the future, so it is essential for brand marketers to get up to speed right away. Yet, there are few primers offering a solid foundational understanding of Big Data much less a comprehensive look at its many incarnations, including those directly affecting brand marketers. This book, written specifically for senior business executives with little or no background in IT, fills this gap. Covering a wide variety of industries, data environments and business applications, this book is the best resource for getting in the know quickly, intelligently and proficiently.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.
What happens when, in an instant, the world you know slips its grooves? Say, a global financial crisis completely unanticipated by the data, cascading wildly for a week toward economic Armageddon. Or maybe an Internet disruption that swiftly antiquates a long-established business model that by all traditional metrics should be secure. Or perhaps the more literal slip of the grooves imagined by Karen Thompson Walker in her highly acclaimed first novel.
Through the eyes of 10-year old Julia, Walker tells a tale of coping with a new life no one saw coming in which the earth is unexpectedly slowing its rotation. Days and nights are steadily stretched out. Gravity is subtly affected. Sunlight burns with deadly intensity. Daily life becomes a cramped indoor affair, relieved only during darkness. Through it all, Julia grows up, experiencing the typical array of adolescent crises, even as family, friends and community strain at the seams to hold ordinary life together.
The power of this novel is its story of apocalypse with a whimper not a bang, its picture of everyday existence under the subtle, unremitting siege of forces beyond one’s control or ken. The deepest insights for brand marketers do not always come from data. Sometimes, the best insights are found in fiction that probes the human heart and mind under extreme pressures. This novel offers one view of adaptation under stress, exactly the sort of scenario that is well within the realm of marketing possibility these days yet, more often than not, well beyond the range of marketing data.
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