“As more data becomes available and as the economy [world] continues to change, the ability to ask the right questions will become even more vital.”
– Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew MacAfee, The Second Machine Age
Those in the business of winning elections have been using all sorts of data (consumer being a big one – what does your magazine subscriptions say about your political leanings?) to build voter models. Combine these models with polling information and you can develop a blueprint for winning messages. Of course this all happens in the limited field and timeframe of elections where the question is clear: How do we win this election?
Corporations use data to forecast our emotional and physical states of being and shape our actions to their benefit. The question for them seems to have evolved from ‘what are the homes addresses of our customers so we can send advertising?’ to something more like ‘can we tell when someone is pregnant based on buying patterns and then lock them in as customers during a high spending period of their lives?’ Of course the overarching questions remains: How do we sell things?
Access to data opens us up to previously unanswerable questions on the path to answering our larger questions.
It would seem there is potential for innovations in social justice organizing based on the advent of ‘big data’ and the advances made in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive behavior. But it feels like we are mostly stuck in guesswork.
Sure there are the MoveOns that can send out emails to hundreds of thousands of people and get metrics back about how it performed. They can even do a/b testing varying email elements across groups to inform best practices. This gets at questions of how do we get more people to open emails, click on links, and sign petitions towards the larger question of how do we win.
The questions we ask along the path to our goal are limited by our existing knowledge, assumptions of existing possibility, and a certainty in the way we do things (or put another way the desire to be right).
But what about what if we could ask something different, something bigger? If economists can use free Google search data to accurately forecast housing market fluctuations months out why can’t we do something similar?
Imagine using data to predict future meta-behavior in order to shape strategies and identify opportunities for organizing, mobilization, communications, and even swift wins. Imagine developing automatic warning systems that foreshadow arising rapid response opportunities before they surface in a news cycle.
To even get to the place of imaging expansive opportunities we need to get to a place of asking the right questions, and letting go of the wrong ones.