The rise and spread of the Internet is one of the most transformative events in human history. Information that would have taken hours of diligent research is available instantly, we are connected to one another in virtual space at all times, and the computers we carry casually in our pockets and handbags can do things that were unthinkable on even the most sophisticated machines just 30 years ago.
But you know all that already—everyone does. And that’s the point. The story of the Internet is a bit like a giant wave—and having washed over everyone and everything over the last 30 years, it is finally cresting. The power of the Internet is no longer news, but a new wave building behind it—a wave made possible by the Internet, but distinct from it—certainly is. That wave is made up of data.
Just as we rely on our smartphones for pretty much everything, we increasingly depend on data to make our most important decisions. That much is clear from a survey of 4,400 people commissioned by Hill+Knowlton Strategies entitled, “The Transformation of Influence: How Data is Changing Attitudes and Decisions.” Eighty-eight percent of people surveyed find claims more persuasive if they are backed up by data. Eighty-nine percent would trust a simple online rating system if it contained at least 100 reviews, but only 19 percent trust the federal government, according to the Pew Research Center.
The survey shows that people use data to make decisions for three reasons—it’s convenient, it helps to confirm their opinions or intuitions, and it makes them feel more confident about their choices. Human judgment is imperfect, prone not only to indecision and uncertainty, but to all kinds of logical fallacies. By comparison, data seems solid and reassuringly simple—how can numbers lie?
Of course, those who understand data very well know that numbers can lie, and that to truly understand a number, one must understand exactly where it came from and what it includes and leaves out. That’s something relatively few people understand, however. According to our survey, some 64 percent of people are not data literate—meaning that they can’t work proficiently with numbers and statistics.
Even though most of them don’t understand it very clearly, people are still eager for data to help them make an increasingly broad array of decisions, ranging from the obvious (84 percent want data to guide their saving and investment decisions) to the most deeply personal and subjective (20 percent want to see data before deciding whether or not they believe in God). People also want others to use data on their behalf. Nearly three out of our people surveyed want businesses to use information about them to make their shopping experiences more personalized.
Given the frenetic pace of data creation, the public can be assured of getting its wish for a more data-driven existence. The amount of data in the digital world doubles every two years, according to EMC (now Dell EMC), which specializes in IT storage hardware. As more and more devices begin collecting and sharing data, that pace is likely to accelerate—indeed, 50 billion objects will be connected to the Internet of Things by 2020, each one pumping out its own stream of bits and bytes.
Algorithms have already taken many decisions out of human hands, and the trend will only continue. Amazon suggests what products we should buy, while Netflix makes uncanny recommendations for new movies and television shows that we might enjoy. Our wearable devices can buzz us when we’ve been sedentary for too long, and maybe in the future, they’ll suggest that we put down the cookie they know we’re eating, too. Self-driving cars certainly won’t rely on human judgment to decide when there’s enough space in traffic to make a left turn—they’ll make an exact calculation based on the distance between oncoming cars, their speed, and the time it will take to accelerate and turn.
The Internet revolution connected us, both to information and to one another. But the data revolution promises to replace us as decision-makers in our own lives. While that might sound scary, in many ways, it will be a relief. In too many cases, the decision-making process is little more than a waste of time, in which we sort through lots of unsuitable options that data could have helped us eliminate almost immediately. In the most extreme cases, our judgment can be dangerous—highway fatality statistics tell that story very well.
What is important, however, is that data is a particularly powerful form of influence that is only gaining in strength. Businesses must dig deep into their own data and use the right numbers to tell their stories, while knowing how to interpret and interrogate those numbers is increasingly crucial for consumers. Even when a machine is making decisions, it’s important to know what inputs it considers if we are to evaluate and judge those decisions for ourselves. While the Internet revolution elevated the importance of literacy and words, through the development of chat forums, message boards, blogs, social media and digital-only content operations, the next wave will be all about numbers. Those who don’t understand will be helpless to participate.