The Deadening Consequences of An Overreliance on Data

Posted on November 13, 2013 
Filed Under General

One of the more insidious aspects of living in a digital age is not having enough time to read full-length articles as much as I like.

Sure, I make a valiant effort to read that wholly absorbing, 20,000-word piece in The New Yorker or a wonderful essay in Harper’s.

But then the distractions kick in, most of them self-inflicted: I check my iPhone and/or email inbox, indulge in some guilty pleasure on YouTube or simply give my eyeballs a rest from the constant exposure to one screen or another.

My guess is that these days most if not all PR pros also find it challenging to make the time to read long-form articles, watch epic documentaries or curl up with a good, thick book.

But if there’s one long-form article you read this month it should be “The Great Forgetting,” by Nicholas Carr, which runs in the November issue of The Atlantic.

The piece should be required reading for PR pros, particularly in light of the growing influence of data on marketing communications.

Carr, author of “The Shallows” and the forthcoming “The Glass Cage,” makes a convincing case that our growing reliance on data is making us less innovative and creative.

Carr splashes cold water on the notion that automation saves us time to pursue other tasks, what scholars of automation have dubbed the “substitution myth.”

“A labor-saving device doesn’t just provide a substitute for some isolated component of a job or other activity,” Carr writes. “It alters the character of the entire task, including the roles, attitudes, and skill of the people taking part.”

He adds. “Rather than opening new frontiers of thought and action, software ends up narrowing our focus. We trade subtle, specialized talents for more routine, less distinctive ones.”

“Less distinctive” will do the PR industry no favors. As more and more of the business becomes commoditized, the last thing PR departments and agencies need is to rely on automation tools that may render their work generic.

Indeed, the article should give PR professionals pause about putting an inordinate amount of their eggs into the data basket.

Yes, we’ve all heard the phrase “If you can’t measure it, it’s not worth doing,” and verbal variations therein. But what if measurement tools and data sets provide us with the analytics but at the same time compromise or, even worse, suppress our creativity?

The PR industry has strived long and hard to better distinguish itself from other marketing disciplines. Don’t let an overreliance on data rob those gains. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1

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