Transcript of my talk, "The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended of up in a world where quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data"
In September 2013, I delivered the opening keynote to the EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference) 2013, a conference for people who care deeply about making organizations more human-centered. EPIC is a truly an interdisciplinary gathering, bringing together people who work in marketing, strategy, design, research, and academia.
The conference was so amazing that Ethnography Matters has dedicated this month’s theme to the best presentations, workshops, and discussions from EPIC attendees.
While I speak regularly at conferences, this was my first time talking at an event for ethnographers. I was a bit scared to speak at EPIC (I don’t know why, since ethnographers are more empathetic than most!). In the end I had a wonderful experience and it was so refreshing to be around people who understand the nature of my work.
At this conference, I did not have to worry about the audience making assumptions about ethnographers. I was relieved that attendees didn’t assume that I don’t do strategy and only sit around watch people all day. And when I said I was an ethnographer, no one gave me a blank face and tried to escape the conversation. And I never heard anyone condescendingly ask: “So does that mean you’re not an engineer or designer?”
Something that made me really excited about my keynote was when I realized that I would be in the same exact building, The Royal Institution, where scientist Michael Faraday had demonstrated electricity to the public for the first time at the infamous Christmas Lecture in 1856. So there I was,157 years later, standing in the same exact place and in the same pose as Faraday.
What made this moment even more special was that it just so happened that a portion of my talk was also about electricity! I talked about the connection between the invention of devices to measure electricity and the invention of computers. (For example, the first commercial computer, the Ferantti Mark 1 was created at Ferranti Unlimited, an electricity company in Manchester.)
When I shared this historical link in my talk, I had to pause and ask people to photograph me in front of the podium, in the same position and pose as Faraday. I think at the time, I said something like,
“who would’ve thought that 157 years later, some Chinese-American chic would be standing in the same spot talking about electricity? Can someone please take a picture?”
Thank you to fellow ethnographer, Julian Cayla, who took this photo of me juxtaposed above Michael Faraday. In this magical moment of historical, technological, spatial, and intellectual serendipity–standing in the same pose as Faraday with my arms left arm pointing upwards–I felt like I had entered into a magical wormhole of ethnographic delirium that erased over a century of separation between these two moments in time.
Here is the summary and some excerpts from my presentation below that will hopefully entice you to read my talk in its entirety.
Technology is playing an increasingly large role in decision-making processes. But are we really making more informed decisions? How do we even know we are asking the right questions? And what are we missing in our measurement-driven world?
This talk seeks to answer these questions by looking at methods of prediction from the Oracle of Delphi in Ancient Greece to the use of electricity during the Scientific Revolution and the invention of computers in the Age of Information. These historical events provide a lens for understanding how we ended up in a “data-driven” society: a world where computers are mostly valued as predictive machines; quantitative output is seen as “truth”; and the qualitative cultural context is seen as inferior to quantitative data. The danger in predictions, forecasting, and measurements that over-rely on quantitative data is that a misleading representation of actual human experiences can result. This is a terrible mistake and one that is committed frequently within organizations.
We are facing one of the biggest struggles of our times: the challenge for institutions is to treat their stakeholders (e.g users, employees, consumers, audience) as humans, not as data points. Connected to this challenge is the dominant belief that numerical measurements such as Big Data, will lead to more knowledge, justifying investment in quantitative research at the expense of qualitative research.
This struggle speaks to the important role of ethnography in ensuring that businesses, governments, and organizations are people-centered in the face of bureaucracy and numbers-driven thinking. But before ethnography can play a more strategic role inside institutions, the field needs to evolve. Ethnographers need to focus on making their work more visible, more integrated with Big Data, and more accessible. Our job is to teach organizations to design for experience, not usability; to create for people, not users.
When companies prioritize experience, they will see a greater business value in bringing in experts to provide explanatory knowledge that is connected to real social experiences.
There were 5 parts to my keynote.
- PART 1: An abbreviated evolution of oracles from priestesses in Ancient Greece to computers
- PART 2: The beginning of the error in conflating measurement with knowledge started with electricity and continues through computers
- PART 3: How computers became the “truth” and acting upon data without context became acceptable among corporations and organizations
- PART 4: What we see when we treat see users as humans, not data points
- PART 5: Why ethnographers are more needed than ever and why we must change the way we communicate our work.
Thank you to EPIC 2013 organizers for inviting me to speak. This opportunity forced me to articulate some of the ideas that have been brewing in my head for a long time. I wrote this talk on week after I had submitted my dissertation. My brain and body were obliterated. On top of that I was recovering from a corneal ulcer and corneal infection (YES because that happens when you look at computers for a long day when pulling all nighters - no bueno). And really all I wanted to do was sleep. But with amazing feedback from Kevin Slavin and Kenyatta Cheese on some really messy early drafts, it gave me just the push I needed to write the rest of talk. I exchanged a flurry of emails with Elizabeth Churchill who patiently explained to me the details of EPIC's history. At the last minute I had also asked Rich Radka and Simon Roberts to do a read over, which I greatly appreciate because their feedback improved the talk. Thank you to Sara M. Watson for providing edits to the summary. And as always, I love my editor, Sean Kolodji.