A Day Made of Data

Humans, Business and Software: the Next Generation

“Data” from Star Trek: The Next Generation (Paramount Studios, 1987–1994)

As an admittedly casual, inconsistent fan of the Star Trek franchise (sorry Trekkies, or Trekkers…), some of the best moments of the “NextGen” series center on the android character Data. More specifically the scenes where he awkwardly struggles through the experience of human emotion. His journey into this confusing realm in some ways reflects the current, rapidly evolving relationship between humans and technology — and especially software technology. As we try to understand and shape what we’re collectively building, and becoming… I believe we must strike a new and difficult balance between data driven analysis, genuine empathy and creative innovation.

In 2011 the original “A Day Made of Glass” video (now with nearly 26 million views) provided an engaging, sunny vision of upper class life in a hyper-digital world of the not-too-distant future. In a similar vein, the software company Citrix released a marketing video in early 2015, which shows how their products will let us turn our self-driving cars and smart homes into seamless, collaborative work spaces (since we all want to bring work into every part of our lives…) — and even into doctor’s offices, through telemedicine technology.

The more dystopian depictions of our collective destination involve, for one, the relatively common pronouncement (such as in Tim Leberecht’s TED Talk) that 50% of jobs will be taken over by software and robots in the next 20 years. With the current state of the wealth gap and political climate in the United States, I hardly need to describe the worst case scenario — just reference your favorite post-apocalyptic show or movie — replacing zombies with androids as needed.

From any vantage point, business is being fundamentally remodeled through technology at an accelerating pace. Even once dominant tech companies like Microsoft have often been caught off guard by new innovations (see Steve Ballmer’s recent explanation on why he believed the iPhone would be a flop) — and are transforming, sometimes slowly and painfully, into more nimble, almost startup-like organizations. Many are even redefining themselves, for example from manufacturing or publishing companies into software-centric solutions companies.

I believe software can now be viewed as a vast respiratory system, in which data and communication function as oxygen — with networks serving in a vascular capacity. Or in more everyday terms, for those of us who are immersed in it nearly 24/7 via smartphones and Smart TVs, wearables and laptops… software is becoming an extension of ourselves and our senses. In a recent conversation on this topic, my former colleague Trey Kimball mentioned that he even sleeps with white noise on his phone, and observed that soon “everything we touch will be a node on the internet.”

As if all of that weren’t immersive and befuddling enough, we often feel obligated to create and monitor a number of digital “selves” (social profiles), while companies and government agencies maintain their own versions of us in their database systems. My son Isaiah is a freshman at ASU Barrett studying Global Health, Sustainability and Mandarin — and an avid software programmer. He recently mentioned that some of his friends ask questions like, “Are you a Reddit or are you a Tumblr?”… While my generation may be more apt to hang out on Facebook or LinkedIn, our individual identities are becoming enmeshed in multiple software platforms, in addition to our families and social groups.

So how do we shape our own future, leveraging software to make life better… as opposed to allowing innovation and automation to make us less human, or leave many of us behind? As you may have guessed I don’t have an easy or complete answer, but I think we can pull some clues from a few of the paradigms that are making headway in today’s marketplace.

I recently had the chance to talk with Michael Guggemos (CIO) on how Insight has benefited from adopting more of a risk-taking, collaborative and iterative approach to solving problems for themselves and their clients — due in part to their acquisition of BlueMetal, a bespoke software firm. But Michael isn’t a fan of tossing around buzzwords like “DevOps” “Design Thinking” and “Lean Startup”… While such frameworks can certainly be valuable, they’re also useless apart from these pre-requisites:

  1. A clear definition and understanding of the right problem (On this topic, my friend and UX Design guru Kevin Goldman recently pointed me to an entertaining, classic read: “Are Your Lights On?”)
  2. Recognition that failure is part of the process, by design. (The point is to create lots of ideas, build the ones that test well with users, fail fast, learn from the data and adapt as you go.)

I’m convinced that if channeled properly, the current explosion in entrepreneurship and innovation can help us succeed together in the age of digital automation. We can create not only new businesses, but new ways of doing business that democratize ownership and opportunity. Access Economy companies like Uber and AirBnB now face competition from platform cooperatives, Open Source and Blockchain technologies are gaining ground, and crowdfunding is building momentum. There’s even a current campaign by Twitter fans to buy out (rescue?) the company, and form it into a user co-op… But “ownership” can also be built into organizational and societal culture. As my former teammate Danielle Cadena noted earlier this year, “Ownership is where the pursuit meets passion. You fix problems, you see things through… you sacrifice and you serve.”

Whether we work for a big or small company, or for ourselves, we can put real users at the center and practice “invisible design” (see this explanation from Jared Spool). We can build, measure and learn, and use software in new and innovative ways — and even make our own software. (If you use Excel formulas you already know the basics of coding — and you can dive in at collaborative learning spaces like Galvanize or online platforms such as Free Code Camp.)

We can choose our course, both individually and collectively, using the best mix of human ingenuity and data analytics — like in the famous “Drop the Shields” scene from NextGen Season 3… We can work on projects with our kids, and help them learn to try new things, and fail, and create new products and jobs, and make history in the process.

It will be uncomfortable and difficult, and we’ll have to compromise, and sometimes we’ll feel foolish… but we can do it, together. And doesn’t that all sound like fun?

-Matt Nixon

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PS — Special thanks to the following individuals, who have helped inform my thinking on this overall topic — and several of whom will be cited in this series of posts.

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