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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Limits of Knowledge
By: Jaffer Ali

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
--Albert Einstein

I am not a philosopher, but a business executive who touches just about every point in the media ecosystem. Most of what I was taught and have read in the trades has been overwhelmingly wrong. In more than thirty years in this business, I've discovered what George Bernard Shaw meant when he urged us to 'beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.'

The great pull for me of Nassim Taleb's writings center around the limits of our knowledge. Taleb is quite fond of saying that he wakes up every morning with a firm grasp on what he does NOT know. Few things are more toxic than devotion to a course of which we are "certain" only to be proved delusional in our thinking. Ponce de Leon's vain search for the fountain of youth comes immediately to mind.

One of my hobbies since high school has been to collect quotations from folks a lot smarter than I. Having accumulated more than 25,000 quotes, and before sitting down to write this, I searched "knowledge". My search revealed some gems that will punctuate this missive.

I believe it is important to get a handle on what we do not know...and even more critical to acknowledge and appreciate what we cannot know. The more and faster things change, the more important it is to explore the limits of our knowledge.

I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post -- for support, ratherthan for illumination.
--David Ogilvy

The online media landscape has largely sold itself on the notion that given enough data it could predict the future. This misguided meme is a variation of La Place who suggested in the 1800s that if we knew all the positions of all the matter in the Universe, we could know the future with as much accuracy as we knew the past.

This idea is known as "causal determinism". Back in Laplace's day, the ethereal province of omniscience was God's alone. Today, it is data that rules the clouds, with but one purpose: to predict what we will buy and when we will buy it.

Those who have knowledge, don't predict. Those who predict, don't have knowledge.
--Lao Tzu

Now, ask yourself a very important question. How effective have predictive algorithms been? Any honest answer would be that they have failed miserably. This is true in social sciences, finance, and of course, online marketing. Click through rates have beaten a path to statistical zero despite terabytes of information collected to predict consumer behavior. When banners were first introduced as an advertising unit, click through rates quickly reached 10% WITHOUT a scrap of data put in service of stalking audiences.

Our response to this dismal performance has been to double-down and collect even more information. We listen to the music and watch as Rome burns. Data has become an obsession.

Information is not knowledge.
--Albert Einstein

What Einstein knew was that more data and more information do not necessarily lead to more knowledge (and certainly don't lead to more wisdom). In fact, a case can be made that this drive has made us even denser as we use it to rationalize our course of action (David Ogilvy's 'lamp post support').

A friend of mine on a discussion list recently said he did not want to hear any theory that did not have "data to back it up". I guess theoretically speaking, and with plenty of data to back it up, we can reasonably posit that online advertising simply doesn't work. Sounds pretty foolish, doesn't it?

But there is a way out of the data/information trap. We can reintroduce imagination to our world.

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- Original Article: Limits of Knowledge

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