On Big Data, Numbskulls, and False Knowledge

Channeling my inner George Bernard Shaw.

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”
–George Bernard Shaw


Anyone writing a non-fiction book on a topic ought to be able to explain the subject to a 10-year-old. I’ve said many times that you may only get 30 seconds in an elevator with someone. You might have a short window, and words matter. Make them count.

Over the last six months, I’ve honed what I think is a pretty simple and effective description of Too Big to Ignore. Just the title evokes the question from most people, “What is Big Data?”

I’ve got my response down to about 20 seconds, using consumer-friendly terms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr. While Big Data is rife with buzz these days, there are still plenty of people who have never heard of it. Among those that have, there’s anything but a consensus on what it means.

Hadoop and Martinis

Of course, Big Data is a big deal. But that hardly means that everyone has heard of it, much less really understands it. Educating people is one of the reasons I write books. And make no mistake: A great deal of education is needed.

Case in point. I went to a mixer a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. I wound up in a conversation with a self-described venture capitalist. (Call him Matt here.) I suspected immediately that Matt didn’t know half of what he claimed to know. His claims were suspect and just didn’t pass the smell test. The term poseur came to mind.

After a few moments, the topic turned to Big Data. I played it coy, not explaining that I had recently written a book about the topic. I asked him a few specific questions designed to test his moxie. He mentioned Hadoop and said something nonsensical about “whoever owns it.”

No one owns Hadoop, damnit.

That’s when I just couldn’t bite my tongue any longer. “No one owns Hadoop”, I scolded him. “It’s an open-source project. Anyone can download it anytime they want.”

Now, people make honest mistakes all the time, but there’s a bit difference between ignorance and false knowledge, as Shaw points out. As I left the bar, I couldn’t help but think of a line from Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in The Hudsucker Proxy, “Only a numbskull thinks he knows things about things he knows nothing about.”

Simon Says: Beware of Big-Data Poseurs

The dangerous thing about a guy like Matt is that some people invariably will listen to him–and come away either confused or just incorrectly informed about important topics like Big Data. To many a layperson, he seems to know what he’s talking about.

Except he doesn’t. Not. Even. Close.

Don’t be afraid to question self-anointed experts. Just because someone drops a term like Hadoop or Big Data doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Look deeper.

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I wrote this post as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise, and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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