In a generation, the relationship between the “tech genius” and society has been transformed: from shut-in to savior, from antisocial to society’s best hope. Many now seem convinced that the best way to make sense of our world is by sitting behind a screen analyzing the vast troves of information we call “big data.”
Just look at Google Flu Trends. When it was launched in 2008 many in Silicon Valley touted it as yet another sign that big data would soon make conventional analytics obsolete.
But they were wrong.
Not only did Google Flu Trends largely fail to provide an accurate picture of the spread of influenza, it will never live up to the dreams of the big-data evangelists. Because big data is nothing without “thick data,” the rich and contextualized information you gather only by getting up from the computer and venturing out into the real world. Computer nerds were once ridiculed for their social ineptitude and told to “get out more.” The truth is, if big data’s biggest believers actually want to understand the world they are helping to shape, they really need to do just that.