A Most Peculiar Data moment

A manager of mine 10 years ago came out with “Perception is reality”. It has niggled at me ever since. Perceptions change, so reality changes? would it not be more insightful calling it perception is a reality? If I see a threat to my business, does it make that threat real? Odd – but maybe this story help me (and maybe you) to have a go at re-evaluating business in general.

Lets go back to February 8, 2013 and meet a journalist called JOHN M. BRODER (here is his article) who was tasked with a review of the Tesla S electric car. He didn’t have a good time. He ran out of charge a lot and never really got to drive like an american expects. His misery is both heart warming and uninformative. A well written piece in my opinion, but telling me nothing but about the battery.

No wonder that Tesla responded. But the response was not just marketing generalities, but the posting of hard data by Elon Musk, the CEO/Founder of Tesla (or one of his representatives – I am sure he is a busy man and had help creating the response?) – talk about getting involved. The response can be found here: http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/most-peculiar-test-drive.

In it the CEO is looking factual and tries to bring across his perplexity that the data does not reflect the reviewers recollection. In fact he has a bit of a go at Top Gear (journalists who are entertainers, rather than factual program makers. I still have not found people who actually believe anything happening on the show as factual – I am sure the hosts don’t). The article in general bemoans the impression that people – and in particular journalists aka Mr Broder are not factual when reporting on cars. He throws facts at the article to contradict the experience and write it off as a lie. And the facts are impressive. talk about big data logging – cabin temperature, detailed location data, speed, breaking, battery charge, projected range, … all there (and surly only the peek of the iceberg).

John of course as all Journalists can respond to a response as they can write well. Better than any non journalist really, especially if used by the New York times for many a year. read it here: http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/14/that-tesla-data-what-it-says-and-what-it-doesnt/ – Here he argues that facts and continuos experience differ, that only some data picked at random no proof make.

As the egos battle it out I am left with two impressions.

a) I have no idea if the Tesla as a car can fulfil my need for transportation. Neither the journalist nor the CEO do anything to help me. All I know is I am not waiting 30 minutes for a car to recharge when I am in an emergency like taking my wife to the hospital just because it got cold. If my expectations, my way of life is dictated by a machine, don’t buy it, right? Wrong…and here comes point 2

b) there is no real argument at any point for battery power. The heart of the debate is not if John’s or Elon’s perception should be my reality, but if my perceptions (and that is all they are) are changed. Batteries are pollution high impact category items. Try to take those chemicals and try and hand them in in their raw state at the local recycling centre. The long term costs of these things, should they go global has not been calculated.

Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird let Atikus Finch famously state that “You never really understand a person until” […] “you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Yet we are content for Banks, Governments, Employers, The law, and others who could excerpt power and control over our behaviour to manage us by numbers.

So we are left to ponder on our own which advocate we should listen to – the one defending the status quo, a world exploited by existing alliances of oil & gas, or a world trying to dominate with new rare natural resources. It occurs that we would only shift the problem. And I also can’t see a justification for either. So by trying to walk in both men’s shoes I find nothing to challenge and change my reality. Not John, who cannot change his expectations set by another technology, nor Elon’s who’s world is judged by numbers and performance only. As a consumer we don’t have either constraint if we choose not to.

Which brings us to Hydrogen – difficult to store and since the Hindenburg with a bit of an image problem. Hydrogen fusion systems are performant, reliable, extremely durable and volatile. You could power your house on it, split it at home (assuming you have some sun) and store it (assuming you have the cash for a containment system). It requires rare metals so the environmental impacts are bad as well. But personally I would hang my hat on that for now. All evidence I looked at so far means the power would end up with the individual – which is where I like it. Imagine you were independent of petrol stations, electricity grids, … – no one could measure you! If you then start spending cash instead of on your credit card and talk to people in person, you might just fall of the grid in commercial terms.

Which brings us to the data world. Google founders in fact believe that data in itself is the “truth” of reality, that it does not lie or put a bias on things, but merely is. We just didn’t measure all of it until now, that there is no need for context, ontology and modelling. Please….how funny is that – if we start to swallow that the sum of human existence is facts based on subjective data without context. Just look at Tesla and the new york times fighting it out. Lots of data on the table.

So I need to remember. There is only one person in your shoes. That’s you. Don’t think for a second that the powers at be have time or the desire to know you beyond the point of supporting their own processes. There is no data supporting any other conclusion 😉 Have fun and don’t forget to poke the man now and then, for your own selfish purposes. For example in the data world cash is a killer, so nothing like paying everything in cash for a year or two.

In conclusion maybe data transparency and identity protection is not the only threat we are facing in the “internetted” data world. Maybe the conclusion drawn from massive data is equally flawed even if it is anonymised. It does not reflect you. It doesn’t reflect anyone. It only gets driven by the processes of collection and the touch points of collection.  All carefully selected for you to prove a point. Its a mugs game, and we are part of it.

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