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  • Jonn Kares

The Sum of Certainty is Zero, or Even Less

Photo by Logan Kirschner from Pexels

I was told once an undesired by-product from the manufacture of military ordinance (i.e.; explosives) is chlorine. Chlorine is highly toxic and how to dispose of it can be a problem. Especially as storage drums of it piled up during WWI.

The answer to "What are we going to do with it?" remained unanswered until someone had the bright idea of using chlorine gas as a weapon, until it was banned for being a less humane way to kill people than bullets and bombs.

Between the two world wars the plastics industry was born, providing a great new way to dispose of chlorine. One of the main ingredients in PVC (poly-vinyl chloride), for example, is chlorine. Chlorine also has disinfectant properties (because of how well it can kill living things) and increasingly found its way into domestic life as a household cleaner, laundry bleach, treating municipal drinking water, and later, as affluence blossomed, being used in swimming pools. Stockpiles of toxic chlorine were turned into a valuable asset class by finding ways to widely distribute it in small quantities everywhere throughout the environments of everyday life.

Another presumed useless industrial by-product is now being actively promoted these days as a source from which value can be derived by giving it a second life. Customer data. Being re-envisioned as a revenue generator rather than a cost. Before computers, a huge proportion of commercial real estate had to be devoted just to store the continents of filing cabinets needed to store all that paperwork, never mind the corps of office workers and desks to take care of it and keep it all straight. Mainframe computers when they came along were hailed for how much less office space and personnel were now needed, but it still cost a lot of money to keep those rotating tape drives spinning.

Now the data that used to occupy whole buildings can now be held between your fingers on a single micro-SD card. And with all that miniaturization came easier access to all that information as the relative cost of computing power approached zero. But it still costs to keep all that data managed and under control. Wouldn't it be great if that cost to keep and manage it could also be made to approach zero? And that's when someone had the bright idea to re-frame data as an asset class and not just a just a liability on the balance sheet. "There's gold in them thar data sets!"


I can't help but notice how so much noise these days about Big Data and machine learning is like someone getting their first electric drill. Everything now needs a hole drilled in it, whether it needs or not. Entire businesses are re-engineering their value propositions to find ways of monetizing their customer data, following the hundred-pound gorillas with astronomical market-values that started out and continue to thrive with ONLY data collection and re-packaging as their only reason to exist.

Any new initiative these days is doomed to receive only yawns unless it has some aspect of data gathering, data analysis, and data monetization in how it provides value. What's being taken to market is not the product or service but rather the data about how people interact with the product or service. Being a market leader is no longer just making a profit by delivering value to customers, market leaders make themselves standout by possessing secret knowledge about their industry sector from analyzing past interaction data to make better predictions about the future. Market leaders are the oracles that claim to have greater clarity about what's in the crystal ball that's better than their competitors'. Because they all have the better data analysis to back up those prophecies.

This business plan shift is being hailed as what innovative companies do. A big part of innovation these days is reading tea leaves based on the assumption the future can be found in the past. For instance, a data-based understanding of consumer behaviour or sentiment that was "x" last week is presumed to likely to be the same "x" next week, or some variation of it. Business leaders are attracted to this of course because predictable predictions fulfill and validate the desired expectation of consistent continuity of market demand without disruption or change. A steady-state status quo makes for much easier supply-chain, resource requirements, and revenue generation planning.

Until the unexpected shows up, that is. And that's when seeking and relying on the illusory comfort of certainty leaves you blind-sided, caught off-guard, and scrambling to stay above water. That's when you are reminded (again?) you can't look forward by focusing on what's behind you, what's already happened. The quest for certainty can only ever be truly fulfilled by creating it, looking forward from this moment, right now. That's innovation. How can a future defined by the past ever be innovative? That's a recipe for same-old/same-old, isn't it?

There's no question insight can be found in mass collections of static data of what's gone on before. But to presume those insights about the past are relevant to the current swirl of the world around you right now can actually be the exact opposite of risk management. 

Refusing to allow the possibility of the not-yet and accessing uncertainty as a resource makes faith in data as a golden asset class truly misplaced when it actually could turn out to be a huge liability.

The even greater danger is the effect on individual people, you know those billions that make up the human race. Especially to the person that counts the most in your life, that being you. People spend decades in psychotherapy struggling with their having built their futures on what's happened in the past. I don't know about you, but I certainly do not want to have to surrender my options for Self-Leadership by having to march lock-step in a new cultural normal of wholesale wide-spread life being lived only in the rear-view mirror. 

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