Big Data: essential even when useless

emma is

Rebecca Greenfield reports on the arrival of “extreme baby monitoring.” For a few hundred bucks, new parents will soon be able to outfit their putative bundles of joy with a variety of sensors—ankle monitors, “smart diapers,” even a networked onesie that sends respiration, temperature, and other data feeds to smartphones—that enable “a big-data approach to parenting.” Comments Greenfield, “By gathering information on your kid’s poop, sleep, and eating schedules, the idea goes, you can engineer a happier, healthier baby.” This does seem like an advance on the technology strategy I deployed in baby-rearing, which involved a pacifier and a martini.*

As a case in point, Greenfield tells the story of Yasmin Lucero, who meticulously tracked a variety of data on her baby Elle. Elle wasn’t a great sleeper—she cried a lot in her crib—and Yasmin hoped that Big Baby Data would unlock the reasons underlying the problem and point to a solution: “She wanted answers: Did she put Elle to bed too early? Too late? Give her too many naps? Parsing data, she thought, would help her figure it out.”

So, after months of grueling data collection and graphing, what did Big Data reveal? Absolutely nothing. “Per the data, Elle was just fussy.”

A waste of time? Not at all: “The results suggested Yasmin couldn’t engineer better naps, as she’d hoped. Just knowing that, however, made her feel better. ‘If you come to the conclusion that you have no control, then it’s okay to relax and just do whatever is convenient for you at the moment,’ she explained.” Let this be an inspiration to Big Data marketers. Large-scale data analysis may be a waste of time and money, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary. After all, how will you know that Big Data has nothing to tell you if you don’t invest in it?

Come to think of it, as a marketing strategy this would also work quite well for Ouija Boards and the I Ching.

*Important legal notice: The baby gets the pacifier, the parent gets the martini.


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9 Responses to Big Data: essential even when useless

  1. Oh My God! The baby wanted to be picked up!

  2. Claude Hiler

    I just finished “The Shallows”.
    In the Chap. “a Thing like Me”, about the the ELIZA program, brought
    home to me the uselessness of all the Data collected and used to advise,
    & direct us.
    It is the same as the Ouija board, fortune telling or Astrology.
    The only thing constructive about any of them including the latest
    tracking APPS is the “Confidence” it gives the “Believer”.
    If you have trust that the information was useful the most meaningless
    trash allows, or persuades, you to take a course of action.
    From the first there were Critics of the superstitious games that people
    use to avoid making, or giving some one or thing responsibility for their,
    decisions; when in fact they themselves provided the “Answers” to the
    questions asked, or applied a meaningless formula!

    So far I have not found anyone willing to challenge, or even question the
    real value or purpose of the “Data” collected by the software programmers,
    who in my opinion are no better than charlatans conning the millions of
    suckers who trust their lives & fortunes to their own self generated

  3. Rich Dailey

    We need to steer the NSA toward this.

  4. Daniel Cole

    You nailed the underlying logic once again with this one. One Neil Postman’s phrases comes to mind- “What is the problem for which this is the solution?”.

  5. Nick

    I just filed a patent for a smart pacifier, by the way. I plan to market it as a “baby dongle.”

  6. I’ve seen almost no one in the marketing world questioning the utility of Big Data, or even its performance versus its cost. In one sense, the rush to embrace it is reminiscent of the Social Media revolution, where the true costs of participation were downplayed (no, it wasn’t free), and those who asked too many questions were dismissed as not “getting it.”

    As for the Baby Dongle, if it would meter the appropriate amount of martini to keep the kid quiet and happy, I’d buy.

  7. TCWriter: I’ve seen almost no one in the marketing world questioning the utility of Big Data, or even its performance versus its cost.

    On the point. Back in the hardware world, every time engineers came up with something, a “cool” feature, marketers would first question the designer, “Why do we need it?” but with these social technologies, there appears to be no distinction between social technology and social marketing. Or, perhaps a better description is, social technologists have won the battle, and marketers are toeing the line.


  8. Or, perhaps a better description is, social technologists have won the battle, and marketers are toeing the line.

    You’re overlooking the number of talentless sheeple found in the marketing world, many of whom are eager to cement their status as “gurus” in an emerging marketing field by shouting down those with legitimate questions about its effectiveness.

    It hasn’t been marketing’s finest hour.