Editor's Choice

Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm

March 31, 2017


Christian Madsbjerg's new book helps us make more sense of the world by encouraging us to include all the data in our decisions, human and technical.

Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm by Christian Madsbjerg, Hachette Books, 240 pages, Hardcover, March 2017, ISBN 9780316393249

We read often in the popular business books of the day about how flawed we are—how inherently irrational, how our brains have evolved to be biased in ways that can work against us in the modern world. The answer to these shortcomings has been to develop better decision-making processes to counter everything from gender bias in corporations to an overreliance on batting average in baseball. And those things represent real progress. So, we turn to the data, to algorithms and algorithmic thinking to trump our own irrationality in an attempt to make better decisions.

Christian Madsbjerg believes we are in danger of losing something fundamental in the rush to embrace this way of thinking—if not our humanity, then our faith in the humanities to help us shape our understanding of the world. And, in doing so, we lose context. His new book, Sensemaking, does not decry data, so much as it argues for a more holistic approach to gathering and interpreting it. It doesn’t argue against a STEM education so much as it champions a liberal arts one. It argues that, in a world where emotional intelligence and cultural understanding are more important than ever before, we need the humanities. 

Individuals fixated solely on STEM, Madsbjerg warns, will hit a ceiling in their careers, as “they simply don’t have the intellectual sophistication required to move into the upper echelons of leadership.” An education in and understanding of the humanities and social science are a necessary prerequisite to our understanding of the world, and of each other. Studies show that while STEM majors have a better starting salary coming out of college and (maybe partly because of that) a higher median salary overall, the most “powerful earners—the people running the show” are those with liberal arts degrees. It’s something he’s witnessed in his consultation work:


After nearly twenty years of counseling the very top executives and management around the world, I can tell you the most successful leaders are curious, broadly educated people who can read both a novel and a spreadsheet.


It is important to be able to think both algorithmically and critically. Algorithmic thinking uses artificial intelligence to break things down so the can be analyzed. Sensemaking—using “human intelligence to develop a sensitivity toward meaningful differences—what matters to other people as well as ourselves,” connects things and puts them in context. Instead of looking for the signal in the noise and separating it, it appreciates the noise as the “background practices” of our culture(s). It is how we relate to the world around us, or as Madsbjerg writes, “to the many different worlds we inhabit.” In a world awash in algorithmic thinking, it is important to remember its limitations.


Algorithmic thinking can go wide—processing trillions of terabytes of data per second—but only sensemaking can go deep.


Put another way:


Big data offers information without explanations for it.


And, in our interpretation, we can miss a lot. Big data can never be completely unbiased or neutral. Not only it is built on a base of human assumptions and outlook, it is stripped of other critical pieces of information and context. Madjsberg offers a great metaphor:


A white swan seems red in a red light; to understand the color of swans, we also have to understand the properties of light. Facts, in other words, always live in a context, and hacking them into discrete data points renders them meaningless and incomplete.


In age in which algorithms tailor what we see in our news feeds, in which the personalization of the media we consume leads to ever more polarization, we need to find a way to break out, to broaden our understanding of the world and our empathy toward others. The humanities are key to that, at the same time they are being discounted as important by the leaders of today's preeminent business powers in Silicon Valley, where the humanities are seen as passé.

As the data and disruption ethos of Silicon Valley seeps into the broader business culture, even into popular culture, we risk losing sight of that rich reality—of any reality, really. It leads to bad decisions, because they are made on false assumptions, or no assumptions at all, assuming its data is pure rather than bathed in the dirty bathwater of human bias. Our bias is often a result of the culture we live in, and understanding culture matters. Yes, human understanding and reason is flawed and biased, but that doesn’t mean we ought to get rid of it altogether. We should use data to help uncover our biases and account for them while making decisions. But we need not, and should not, throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Bringing in data should be a part of the decision-making process, not the process itself.


By putting technology above us, we stop synthesizing data from other sources. We miss out on a sustainable efficiency that comes from holistic thinking, not optimization.


Whereas the Silicon Valley orthodoxy eschews theory for raw data to understand the world, Masjberg brings philosophy and theories from the humanities to bear on the problems at hand. And he has helped companies put them into practice around the world. His first example is of how his team helped Ford think beyond its traditional engineering culture and immerse itself in the worlds its customers inhabit (which is important, because lane assist technology may be great in Detroit, but it doesn’t work so well in countries where traffic lanes don’t really exist, which if you’ve ever driven in India, you know they don’t).

He leans toward philosophers of the phenomenological tradition who believe ”our greatest skills and innovations are not the result of conscious thought.” That sounds counterintuitive, and there’s a reason for that:


Though this seems obvious when we discuss acquiring a new language, it is actually in radical contradiction to the prevailing norms in many corporations, institutions, and even education systems that explicitly and tacitly assert that our greatest skills are exhibited when we are sitting alone thinking abstract thoughts.


Perhaps we should remember the great thinkers who made us aware of how flawed and irrational our thinking can be in the first place—Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman—were psychologists, not data scientists. And they understood the power of intuition and unconscious thinking in our greatest flashes of insight, even as they warned against irrational leaps of judgment. Madsjberg tells us:


In his famous book from 2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote that the more knowledge we have stored away—the furnishing of our minds—the more adept we are at these so-called flashes of intuition …


Original ideas require openness and grace more than will, even if they are the result of painful deliberation, and require will to apply. Do not discount the data, but do not discard your ability to see beyond it, either. We need to be able to read both a novel and a spreadsheet to be successful in today’s world. We need to be able to make sense to make meaning, to have a perspective and point of view to make progress.


We recognize patterns—distilled from both scientific facts and practical reality, from both existing situations and future possibilities—that shed light on insights and, ultimately, help us form a genuine perspective. And perspectives, in the long run, always prove far more profitable—to both your bank account and your life—than confinement in a cage of data.


I don’t know about you, but I would like to immerse myself in the world while I still have time on it. And while the digital world has added to our experience and understanding, it will eventually limit it if we discard the richness of other worlds. We should not become so enamored of digital and technical data that we ignore the real world data all around us. It leads not only to a less informed understanding, but to a less enriching life:


We are so fixated on staring at the oracle of the GPS that we have lost all sensitivity to the stars shining right above our heads.


So choose to live in and study the world, not just an interpretation of it. Data is important, but with Masjberg’s approach to sensemaking, we have a better chance of putting it in the proper context and using it to enrich our lives and our understanding. Sensemaking helps us navigate the world by encouraging us to include all the data in our decisions, human and technical.

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