The Wisdom of Gwion Bach for Business

How an ancient legend from the Court of King Arthur can inform your work in commerce in our digital age

This article is an interpretation of the folktale of Gwion Bach and the Utter Darkness, retold from the epic the Mabinogion. If you aren’t familiar with that story, go and read it first — it’s a gripping adventure.

Why consider the ancient Welsh legend of Gwion Bach as a source of insight for international businesses in the digital age?

Taken literally, the story of Gwion Bach is out of date and irrelevant to business. No corporation today has to struggle with the specific social and cultural obstacles that confronted Gwion Bach. There is no such thing as a magic potion of transformation, and it’s likely that the most of the historical details of the legend are a complete fabrication.

Mythological stories, however, aren’t meant to be taken literally. A legend such as the tale of the transformation of Gwion Bach can be true in a larger sense, even if all of its details are factually incorrect. It is in its figurative power that the story becomes useful to us in business, speaking to issues that are relevant today: Big Data, innovation, disruption, brand management, and the dangers of excessive reliance on technology.

Gwion Bach is an allegory of human experience, and in a time when innovation has been equated with digitalization, understanding of human experience outside of the highly abstracted practice of data analytics is in short supply.

The Limits of Big Data

In the story, Ceridwen solved the problem of her son’s ugliness by consulting the Big Data of her time: Virgil’s Aeneid. To us, the Aeneid is just one of many ancient epics, but to Ceridwen and her Welsh contemporaries, it was revered as the largest known single source of data. The Welsh believed that the book was so huge that it could be used to answer all manner of questions, through a process of turning to randomly passages, and interpreting a message from the connections that could be made between them, in a similar method to those who claim to use the Bible Code to predict the future today.

Of course, we know today that turning randomly to pieces in a big bank of data and expecting messages of meaning to emerge from the process is superstitious nonsense. However, the world of business isn’t immune from similar, only slightly less superstitious acts of divination. How many times have we opened up the pages of the most trusted business publications to see certain predictions of the future, based on readings of data from the past?

It may seem strange to suggest that data analytics is being used as a form of digital divination, with cultural links going back to supernatural methods of ages past. After all, data is objective.

On the other hand, data do not speak for themselves. It’s the interpretation of data that enables “data scientists” to engage in their own kind of soothsaying. Subjective interpretation is inevitable in data analytics, if only in the choice of which kinds of data to measure, and how to operationalize their meaning. It’s a common mistake for people in business to presume that, because the information they collect is objective, their interpretations of that information is objective as well.

Ceridwen had a huge amount of data at her disposal, but made a critical error in her interpretation of that data: She assumed that the “son” referred to by her divinitory data was Morfran, the only son she knew. She didn’t consider that the same course of action recommended by her oracle would lead to the creation of another son. In the same way, it’s all too easy for businesses to presume that they are measuring one thing, when in fact, they are actually measuring another. Skipping the crucial stage of in-depth qualitative research, their analytics departments describe in minute detail a world that is divorced from the experiences of their consumers.

Businesses have more data at their disposal than their predecessors could have dreamed of. The story of Gwion Bach, however, reminds us that quantity doesn’t necessarily bring quality.

Out of an entire cauldron full of potion, only three drops had the potential of magical transformation. The rest of it meant certain death. We’re experiencing the same problem with Big Data. Although we have unprecedented amounts of information, we still struggle to find the meaning of it all. The significance is huge, but its profile gets lost in our pursuit of scale.

The Power of Presence

In the same way that Ceridwen hired Gwion Bach to attend to her tasks, quantitative market research has been outsourced. The data collection, analysis, and deployment is all moving toward automation, in cycles of decreasing human presence. Without human presence, the functional tasks of research continue, but the relevance of it all grows more distant.

Ceridwen could look at her calendar and count the days down to the time when her potion should be ready, but she knew nothing of its changing quality over time, because she wasn’t there to see it for herself. She certainly couldn’t have grasped Gwion Bach’s growing sense of intimate understanding of the the brew. Because her focus was on the outcome, rather than the process, she failed to see that direct experience of the long process of brewing was the most important ingredient of the magic she sought.

Ceridwen’s money, her social status, and her professional knowledge weren’t enough to bring her the benefits from the potion she concocted. Her son Morfran also failed to gain the accumulation of Awen because, like his mother, he simply didn’t show up to attend to the project of his own self improvement. Like data miners today, Ceridwen placed her quest for insights in a black box, to develop all on its own. Only Gwion Bach, the boy who lived in the box for a year, proved worthy of its secrets.

Qualitative research stirs the pot of insight. It brings light into the black box. It’s an approach that, although it involves more ambiguity than quantitative methods, moves businesses away from abstractions through the power of simple presence. Being there is what it’s all about.

It’s not just any qualitative research that can pull businesses out of their data blindness, of course. All too often, research teams opt for qualitative shortcuts of superficial methodologies such as surveys and focus groups. Research firms offering these services claim that they’re quick and cheap, providing the required number of respondents without the cost in time and money required by more rigorous methods. The quality of time spent with respondents is even more important in the value of research, however, than the number of respondents involved in the study. Getting a large sample size doesn’t matter at all if the investigation of the people in sample is off target or too cursory.

How can market research reach deeper? Time matters.

Gwion Bach brought nothing but time to his work at the cauldron. He began his journey with no special merit. He was no different than any of the countless other impoverished children in his time. He had no money, no education, no social connections, and no ability in particular. What’s more, the job he was called upon to do seemed meaningless. All he had to do was stir a big kettle with a stick. Where is the potential for growth in that kind of work?

Actually, Gwion Bach was the embodiment of potential. He had the ability to become something new because he was unattached to a valuable social identity. While Ceridwen’s status prevented her from watching over her own brew, the boy had no such restriction.

Gwion Bach certainly didn’t plan on stealing the magical power of Ceridwen’s magical potion. Nonetheless, over time, he gained access to that power through one simple practice: He paid attention to what he was doing. He earned the right to take the transformative power of the three drops simply by being present.

The boy began his year at Ceridwen’s cauldron knowing nothing about her potion. By the time he was done, however, he knew more about it than the sorceress did. It’s true that she knew the recipe to make the brew, but the boy knew it almost as a living thing. He knew its colors, its smell, the sound and shape of its vapors as they escaped. Day by day, he watched its volume shrink. He saw its qualities transform as it went through its slow cooking. He noticed patterns in the bubbles that formed in its surface, and traced the subtle ripples caused by mysterious objects moving through its depths.

Without anything else to do, Gwion Bach also had the time to contemplate what he saw in the cauldron. He could hold long conversations with his only companion, the old man Morda, about their task. He also could ask questions of other servants as they passed by, without being impatient with their long answers. He had the time to consider at length the dynamics of Ceridwen’s family, dealing not only with Morfran’s curse, but Ceridwen’s problems as well. With time, the boy learned to see beneath Creirwy‘s veil of beauty. Through a combination of subtle questioning and sharp observation, he not only learned Ceridwen’s magic secrets, but began to perceive a weird connection between them, beyond what the potion’s recipe could reveal.

Just as time gave Gwion Bach the opportunity to build a rich, multilayered understanding of his subject, qualitative research can gain depth through a patient, open-ended approach to inquiry. It’s not about objective measurement, but about rich, immersive experience.

The Three Drops and Transformation

As symbols, the Three Drops are subtle, like the fluid material of which they are made. Solid objects are comparatively easy to identify, with clear boundaries that are steady over time. Liquids, on the other hand, change shape readily, flowing to accept the boundaries imposed on them by the world around them, and can even disappear into apparent nothingness through evaporation.

The three drops of Ceridwen’s potion carry within them the power to grant their recipient the power of fluidity. After accepting these drops, Gwion Bach gains the ability to change shape like a liquid, choosing whatever identity suits the need of the moment.

There are three drops in this legend, rather than two or four, in order to represent the process of liminal transformation experienced in rites of passage. This three-step process is a journey through time. The first drop stands for where we have been — the identity that we bring to the transformation. The second drop stands for the present moment, and the betwixt and between condition of fluid transition between identities. The third drop stands for where we will be in the future — the identity that we seek to achieve.

This process of becoming liquid will be familiar to many people in business in the form of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who writes about flow as the condition of experience that enables enhanced performance and creativity. The threshold fluency of ritual participants is made possible by the temporary melting of the strict social rules associated with formally recognized identities.

It’s ironic that the same Silicon Valley giants that brag about being disruptive employ business models that characterize human beings as set in their ways. Data scientists make much of the Power of Habit, because it suits the data mining industry to depict people as static and predictable. In practice, tech giants’ predictive models of consumer behavior don’t measure up to the hype. Human identity, it turns out, is too complex and fluid to be tracked by current systems of artificial intelligence.

Certainly, the algorithms identify useful behavioral patterns often enough to turn a profit, but the frequently off-target deployment of impersonal personalization schemes alienates consumers, reminding them that digital businesses regard it as a waste of time to actually get to know their customers. Marketers’ habit of segmenting their customers into quantifiable categories is an extension of offensive cultural practices such as racism and sexism, treating people as types rather than as worthwhile individuals. The truth is that typologies are only accurate in the aggregate, and when individuals don’t meet the average, the results can be disastrous.

When habit does shape consumer behavior, it’s a symptom of a commercial relationship that has broken down, degrading into mere commodification. Routine rules only when every brand is interchangeable, because none of them are willing to establish meaningful relationships with consumers. When consumers sink into predictable patterns of habit, it’s a sign of resignation and disengagement.

Gwion Bach’s first manifestation of enchantment is an act of transformation. So it is that consumer excitement and engagement is rekindled when the opportunity for change breaks the straightjacket of habit. Our hearts race at the suggestion that we might could change our identities.

In fact, people engage in acts of transformation all the time, and use commercial products and services as objects of enchantment to assist in the process. Of course, these transformations aren’t as dramatic as turning from a child into a rabbit, but they are no less real. Despite what marketers’ static personas would have us believe, no one stays firm in one true self. Throughout the course of our lives, the turning of a year, and even the passage of a day, we shift between different identities as the situation demands it.

To accomplish these transformations, we engage in rites of passage — rituals of identity management. Macrorituals such as marriage make significant, nearly permanent alterations in our sense of self. More frequently, microrituals such as a commute between work and home, or the purchase of a cup of coffee, help us move between different aspects of our identities. At the large and small scale alike, constellations of objects, commercially acquired, are employed in these ritual practices.

Gwion Bach’s story of shapeshifting magic shows us an alternative to the impersonal, automated model of unchanging, predictable consumers preferred by Silicon Valley. A more human experience is made possible through the practice of commerce as a form of ritual, uniting consumer and marketer in a community of mutual enchantment.

The cauldron of Ceridwen that Gwion Bach attends is a recepticle of fluid identity that represents the protected sphere of ritual, within which a variety of ingredients are combined and cooked to form a unified, coherent new way of life. Businesses can provide these metaphorical cauldrons for these customers, but the process requires the investment of time.

The Success of Morfran

In an unexpected twist, Ceridwen’s failure to magically enhance her son Morfran, to make him suitable for the court of King Arthur, turned out to be irrelevant in the end. Morfran went on to become one of the knights of Camelot, not in spite of his strangeness, but because of it. Without any magical assistance, he became one of the Three Irresistible Knights, whose requests could never be refused.

Today, Silicon Valley leaders are fond of depicting our humanity as a flaw that must be overcome. They say that human beings are too slow and too stupid to be of use in the glorious future they will bring about, and propose a Transhumanist program of technological enhancements of our weak biology to solve the problem.

Just as Ceridwen was unable to perceive the weird skills of Morfran, because they did not fit her model of what a knight should be, the gurus of Transhumanism overlook the special non-linear abilities of human consciousness, which evolved over billions of generations of natural selection, not in a startup sprint.

In the end, Morfran prevailed when the more charismatic members of the Round Table could not. At the Battle of Camlan, in which Mordred’s army defeated King Arthur, only the Three Irresistible Knights survived.

Computers may be able to defeat human beings in a game of chess, but life is not a game of chess, with a tiny stage and only a few rules to follow. The world is an astonishingly complex place, and many different strategies can be successful within it. The precise power of technology certainly has its place, but the bizarre, slow, and stupid behaviors of human beings may be more adaptive than they at first appear.

In business, there is as much opportunity for growth to be found through enhanced attention to technologies that already exist as there is to be gained through technological innovation. It’s worth remembering that every technology available to us, even the most simple, was once a revolutionary innovation. In our digital age, we tend to be dismissive of bricks-and-mortar businesses and analog technologies, even as consumers continue their intimate connections with them. Those who train themselves to hear the voice of Morfran within these products and services will perceive great beauty where others see only ugliness.

Once again, this article is an interpretation of the folktale of Gwion Bach and the Utter Darkness. If you don’t know that legend, go and read it now to make sense of what’s written here. It’s a wonderful allegory of enchantment that makes a wonderful fireside tale.