By Ron Gutman, Curator TEDx Silicon Valley
Numbers have always been at the center of innovation in Silicon Valley. Now a new concept (and what some would call a movement), Living by Numbers, is gaining significant momentum here and elsewhere. New ways of collecting, tracking, and analyzing data – not just as communities but actually as as individuals – are giving way to significant insights, and creating new opportunities. Numbers transformed into information and then morphed into wisdom and eventually action will become an influential platform for the next era of innovation. As LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman noted earlier this year: big data is the next big thing – it “is where some massive innovation will happen that will transform our lives.”
Living by numbers sounds like a modern concept – something from the post-computer age, or even the future. The phrase conjures up images of a never-ending string of numbers, and a world where people live more by logic than emotion. But is this concept really so contemporary or futuristic? Is it really so cold and cerebral?
Examples of How We’ve Been Living by Numbers Throughout History
As humans, we’ve always been fascinated by numbers, and have long known the benefits of using them to guide our daily lives – from the Ancient World through the Industrial age to today.
We’ve used numbers to bring us water and to cross it – we used mathematically precise calculations and building techniques to build the Roman Aquaduct system in the Ancient world to the first sea clock that allowed us to circumnavigate the globe in the 1770s. The Roman Aquaducts, powered by gravity, were built to technological standards of amazing precision (to prevent overflows or clotting). The famous aqueduct bridge the Pont du Guard in France has gradient of only 34 cm per kilometer (3.4:10,000), meaning that it descends only about 56 feet vertically over its entire length of over 31 miles.
In 1764, a self-educated British clockmaker John Harrison invented the first clock that accurately keep time at sea, enabling sailors to establish the longitue of a ship, revolutionizing and extending the possibility of safe long distance sea travel. Five years later explorer Captain James Cook used this chronometer to circumnavigate the globe, completing the first detailed charts of the world. Aqueducts brought fresh water for drinking, fountains and public pools, and managed sewers to dramatically expand the size of and transformed the nature and quality of life in cities. Sailing and charting the world forever changed the nature of navigation, travel, trade and exploration.
We’ve lived by numbers, keeping intimate track of time, to order our world and improve our productivity – from adopting the Gregorian calendar in the Age of Discovery to the development of the modern automated Ford assembly line in the Industrial Age. In 1582 Pope Gregory the XIII introduced the modern calendar we still use today, replacing one adopted by Julius Ceasar over 1500 years before, and correcting the assumption of the Julian calendar that a year is 365¼ days long, when it’s about 11 minutes less. The error had caused the calendar to be off by about 3 days every 400 years, requiring a shift of a full 10 days, when the Gregorian Calendar was adopted. In the Industrial Age machine manufacturing replaced manual labor, and automated production and new theories of efficiency helped re-orgianze commerce and our lives. The Ford Model-T assembly line increased production by 8:1, reducing the man-hours required to build a car to 1 hour 33 minutes, and producing cars so quickly that only Japan back paint would dry fast enough, driving the company to drop previously available colors until a faster drying liquor paint was developed 12 years later. Living by numbers in the Age of discovery involved erasing a week and a half from the calendar to put time back on the right track, and in the Industrial Era we tracked time to erase costs and make previously inaccessible goods available to the masses.
Today, data and numbers touch nearly every aspect of our daily lives. From the scientific method, that has been the bedrock of innovation in academia and cutting edge businesses, to ubiquitous smart phones that help us measure almost anything and everything.
Now each of us quite literally lives not only by numbers, but actually with our own number – a unique identifier that is both most effective means of reaching us at any time, and our primary means of connecting with others and with data. We’re becoming increasingly connected through smart phones and tablets – each day over 600,000 Android and Apple OS devices are activated and over 10 million apps are downloaded every day.
How Living By Numbers has Evolved
Over time we’ve gone from living by numbers tied to calendars to new means of exploration and transportation, to how we organize ourselves as a society and live together, to how we communicate with each other and access information. And along this pathway, numbers have changed humanity. They’ve altered not just how we live our lives, but the basis of our beliefs as well.
Take the scientific method: systematic observation, measurements, and experiments, followed by formulating, testing, and modifying hypotheses. In the late 19th century, Charles Sanders Peirce introduced the basic schema for hypothesis/testing for scientific discovery, and proposed a system of three kinds of inference – abductive, deductive, and inductive – that influence in the development of current scientific method generally. This method created a pathway for us to understand the world based on what we can measure. This reveals something very powerful: the transformative potential of numbers.
The Transformative Power of Numbers
The most exciting numbers are the ones that lead us to informed action. Living by numbers isn’t just about keeping track of them, it’s about using them to positively impact our lives. When we transform data into information, we enable ourselves to use this information to create knowledge, and in turn to turn this knowledge into action. When we follow the progression of numbers to their useful conclusion, they can become the basis for actions in our daily lives that are based on wisdom that we know is supported by fact and not merely belief.
What Living by Numbers Means Today
We’re entering into the next stage of the power of numbers and data. Previously, the use of numbers to guide and govern life occurred in the realm of social and religious leaders, then scientists and academics, and later businesses – but numbers shave never historically been in the domain of the public.
One important way of making numbers accessible and enabling quick decisions based on numbers is data visualization – a powerful means for conveying data in a way that’s easy to understand. With visualization tools we create the possibility for data to impact our lives in meaningful ways, by giving numbers context, relevance, and immediate accessibility. Visualization allows for us to put different datasets together quickly, and to instantly extract meaning from data.
This is changing. Today (and moreso in the near future), we can collect and track personal and communal numbers in exciting new ways. It’s easier and cheaper to store this data, and there are ever more, and simpler, ways to analyze and utilize these numbers in our daily lives. Information created by them is also increasingly accessible using data visualization – powerful means for conveying numbers in a way that’s easy to understand, and from which we can quickly make more informed decisions. Living by numbers leads to fascinating daily discoveries about us and our environment, creating enormous potential for positive personal and social change.
Life can and will change with the tools to collect, store, analyze, and understand numbers in ways that have only recently become available to individuals. As we realize that the exciting potential for what this new day of living by numbers can mean for each of us personally, we should also not forget to question where this leaves us at the end of the day as humans.
We should diligently consider the potential implications of this trend both for our society and our humanity, in the short and long term: Is making decisions based on just numbers always the right choice? Does moving from knowing less to knowing more always leave us better off? Who owns the numbers we generate, individually and collectively, and how should we handle them? How do we retain our humanity, beliefs, and core values in the presence of these new numbers and insights? And, of course: How can numbers be used to innovate for social change and improve our lives and the lives of others?
The answers to these questions can help guide our social dialogue around living by numbers, and help us understand when and how to integrate numbers into our daily lives so that we can, as humans, maximize the potential for data and numbers to create positive change for each of us. In this way, living by numbers can form the foundation for creating new kinds of social and personal wisdom, by expanding our knowledge and understanding of our daily life experiences, and helping us direct this wisdom toward our own greater good.
Damon is animated. Damon leaves alone massive calculations and speaks to a static screen. He hits us with the softer side of numbers . . . or so it seems. The responsibility that comes with the power within all the data we have is actually pretty heavy.
Data on each of us is everywhere and we and other people can use it, almost like a “tell” in poker: somewhere someone tracks if you pay your bills on time, where you click on a website, what your medical history is . . . and they have a better idea of how you might act in the future.
Question: should we be collecting all of someone’s data to makes his experiences better (and to maybe make us safer) or leave him alone?
People in the audience obviously cant agree or don’t have an opinion and Damon (knowing this would happen) shows us how we have stronger, clearer views on our smart phones than on moral choices.
My thought – there is a simple reason for this, moral viewpoints are murky and challenging; what just happened doesn’t mean the audience is morally adrift at sea. But Damon’s point isn’t to chastise, it is to urge us to actively think about morals. He asks us to “think less about our mobile operating system and more about our moral operating system.”
He continues “How might we use numbers as a basis for a moral framework? What if ethics were like math?” What about a calculation that shows what maximizes group utility and minimizes social pain? Well, that’s utilitarianism. Some adhere, but ages of philosophers and the never ending debate between those that ascribe to Mill, or Kant, or Plato, or Aristotle tell us that there are to be no easy answers.
Ethics is hard. It requires (uncomfortable) thinking. But thinking, Damon syas, is what we need to continue to do; it is often what we forget to consciously take the time to do.
Damon introduces the concept of “The Banality of Evil”- wrong doings don’t necessary come from bad people but from the lack of thinking about what is right.
- Post by Julian Marcelleus Jordan
Brian plays the cello for us. Then he drinks some water. All the while the screen behind him is registering points – as if his actions are being recorded for a game. He has lived in an abandoned airshaft for the last several years working to create sensors . . .
Everything he does (talk about painting, drink from a water bottle, play the cello) gets captured by this sensor software he has created and measured then mashed around to give him “lifestyle points” for example.
He throws the audience some toy balls and asks them to throw them around. They are equipped with sensors and a “happiness factor” of sorts is recorded on the screen.
Think about if these sensors could be used to give us a real life Zinga – we would get points in the real world for ACTUALLY working in our real yards.
- Post by Julian Marcelleus Jordan
Ruth (@spontanesmiley) is smiling as she starts talking.
Having a happier life through the power of a smile.
Ruth speaks about her Spontaneous Smiley Project – a project to take smiles that appear all around us, or “a smiley” (they can appear on a cake, on a tree, in a glass). She urges us to be porous, to be open to the things that can potentially give us pleasure.
The Project started in 2008 as a facebook group and has since gotten 15million page request from around the world.
She has partnered with Operations Smile, a non-profit which works to give children with cleft lips the surgeries they need.
Stumbling across a smile or smiley, and being open to them, can remind us that we CAN chose to have a happier life – because 1000 times a day we can decide how we act and how we react. Hell, I’m smiling now.
- Post by Julian Marcelleus Jordan
There are 3 super smart guys creating music from the connections and correlations of people’s tweets in the auditorium. Amazing. They need us all to turn ON our tweet enabled devices. The first time I’ve been in a performance where they say: “please turn your phones on”.
- Post by Julian Marcelleus Jordan
How to change the world by using maps. Patrick Meier speaks – @patrickmeier
He launched a live crisis map immediately after the earthquake hit Haiti. It was one of the most useful data points during the crisis according to FEMA.
With content from twitter, facebook and mainstream media Patrick and his friends from Fletcher brought this map to life.
In Syria, Egypt, Lebanon activists are using maps to report activity. Patrick and his friends created Airwolf to help activists change the world, one map at a time.
-Post by Julian Marcelleus Jordan
His first point – observations change behavior.
He reminds us all of The Hawthorne Effect – the act of observing your actions will encourage you to improve. In other words, being aware of what we do and the consequences of what we do, helps us make wiser decisions. Observation is a powerful incentive to improve performance.
His second Idea – Sensors make observations automatic and real time.
He speaks about the “control movement” of the 1940′s and 50′s. A picture of a Governor is shown. A Governor was an early an automatic device, an engine, that had its own a feedback loop (it was a closed loop system, a phrase we always use today). Closed looped systems use censors to monitor their action and then the conversation between these sensors and actuators allows for modulation.
Today we live in a sea of sensors. One example is the accelerometer. A 3-axis accelerometer only cost about $2 and you can find them in most of our smart phones. We carry this sensor around with us an they give us the power (whether we realize it our not) to measure the world around us.
A Third element – the notion of sharing. Community based efforts can be used to improve the quality of life. When you link people they have powerful network effects, have huge influences on one another, because we can what other think of us.
Chris applies these concepts to his own life. For example, he tracks and monitors his workout activity, his sleep . . . his family even monitors their weight together. Tracking choices and consequences . . . We all emit “data exhaust”: a pulse, temperature, brains waves. Previously this was “terra incognita” but now we can start to measure and use this data to break through the noise and learn more about new ways, hopefully better ways, to live our lives.
– Post by Julian Marcelleus Jordan
Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc., corrected a widely held myth: that artificial intelligence is separate from our own intelligence.
“The extraordinary convergence between computing and human potential is taking us toward a global brain,” and intelligence is largely driven by data that we type or input into the cloud. Yet, when we talk about global consciousness we land on really trivial stuff like orange being the universal color for decaf coffee.
Computers harness our intelligence and soon they’ll collect data without our typed inputs. The smarter the algorithm and the better computers can collect data, the better off we will be (if this sounds like a technopositivist position, you’re quite right).
But our algorithms mirror our vices and virtues. So computing should not advance unchecked. If we think of this global brain as a child, which it is, the question should not be what can it do, but how should we nurture it and what should we be teaching it?
What should we be teaching the global brain? How can we direct it to solve the most important problem facing humanity?
- Post by Steph Beer.
Tweet contagion and even the spread of crazy dance moves is not easily understood because of reflection problem (birds of a feather…) and the tricky causation vs. correlation question.
Pure data makes it hard to suss out why we choose to be friends with certain people and why we listen to or follow some but not others. Network data serves us better as we try to answer these questions as they relate to social and marketing questions.
Sinan Aral, social network analysis prof at NYU Stern School of Business and MIT, created a platform to study how products to go viral. He learned a that few simple features can increase product adoption by a whole lot – namely, those that allow users to invite others to use the product or participate in some way with the idea they are conveying.
Personal invitations are critical for spreading an idea – much more than passive awareness (like wearing the tee shirt) – because it creates more stickiness. People who invite others are more likely to return to the product or event or idea, and their friends are too.
- Post by Steph Beer.
Privilege is a matter of access to information, and that’s true for people as well as data. There are “haves” and “have-nots” in the data world too, says Jennifer Pahlka (who founded a nonprofit Code for America for data, err, people).
Lucky data has friends that they mashup with, they get noticed, they live in well-structured databases with APIs.
Poor data is stuck on paper or a personal drive.
Government can work more effectively if we liberate the data and use it to improve our lives. There are a lot of people in government who are ready to change, but they need help. Code for America aims to make things like tax preparation as easy as visiting the ATM.
- Post by Steph Beer.