Data, Telemetry & Whimsy

I saw this music device yesterday.  It has a 4 banks of 10 Perspex blocks, each bank representing a different musical element (drums, bass, vocals and so on), and the ten blocks within each being different samples from songs.

That white space in the middle recognises which block you’ve out down, and starts playing that sample.  You can move the sample around to change balance and volume.  It’s music creation by way of Kal-El’s Kryptonian crystals.

I stood and watched people for five minutes or so, listening to what they created, and seeing how they reacted to it.  It was a very quick cycle; intrigued, experimental, excited, going-through-the-motions, bored.

It’s a lovely piece of whimsy, a fun party thing.  But I can’t remember what it’s called, the morning after, even though I looked at the name and tried to force it into my head really quite hard.  But nope, gone.

However, it’s made me think about two things around data.

First of all, having lots of data to crunch and play with doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t space for new creative input.

The samples of the table were fixed, static, echoes of past creativity that you were allowed to play with, but not alter.  And there was no way to create your own sample (tapping on the table, sliding your finger across etc).

So you’re stuck in the same, repetitive loops of remixing someone else’s stuff.  No wonder people got bored.

It’s the same with marketing data; if you only use what’s on the table, and restrict yourself to that, then everybody’s going to get bored pretty quickly and walk away.

If you’re fixated on short term big data, you need to leave space for creative input and instinctive leaps, or you’ll never make anything new.

Secondly, the table shows how immediate and visceral data can be, but how quickly it loses importance and becomes irrelevant.

In the immediate past and present, the people generating and reacting to the data are captivated by it.  In that interesting loop of creating and perceiving simultaneously.

And in that moment, you could take any one of those individual blocks as a data point – for instance, what they were calling the bass line from Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.

(It ISN’T a bass line of course, but a semi-acoustic guitar set down an octave by an effect pedal.  They weren’t to know.)

You could analyse the immediate movements and reactions to that bass line across the table with great precision.  You could find out how many people used it, what they tended to use it with, the volume it would typically be set at, the eq balance, how long people used it for… and so on.  Getting data out is easy.

All that data that was generated could be used to create a pretty decent understanding of how that element was being used in that moment, and what perhaps might but done to make people use it more (suggestions of what to use it with, where to place it, etc).

But as you break out of the short term, people are going to turn away from that piece of whimsy, and disappear off to do something else.

Which means all that data you know about them from that session is irrelevant for them.  They have become subject to new, different, unseen stimulus that you’ll never be able to collect as data,so even if they come back to the table the next day, they’ll do different things and you’ll break your soul trying to use the data you do have to calculate why.

Perhaps data like this is only useful as telemetry – useful guidance in the short term around a thing to steer people.

If you are prepared to invest the time and effort and manpower into making data pay off in the short term, before people disappear off and the moment is lost, then it’s useful.

But if you’re just creating a piece of whimsy, where the aim is just to give people an interesting experience for a few minutes, then you might be better off spending less effort on working with the data around it, as pretty quickly the usefulness of the data will disappear.


If you haven’t already, why not follow this up with Mark Hancock’s piece on Big Data on the Guardian Professional site.


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