The Conundrum of Data (and — a Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

To bend Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia, data is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. On one hand, data’s function is as apparent and concrete as the four basic laws of physics, expressed in ones and zeroes. But on the other hand, as the base of our emerging digital civilization, data’s nature is subjective and elusive.

This is the conundrum we are resolving at

Hence my analogy with human evolution, which began first with exploration of the Cambrian explosion-like burgeoning of data into a planetary organism. My second essay in this series examined the emergence of data’s nervous systems and brains, which deliver coherence.

That analogy now moves to what I call the tale of two “evolutionary last miles.” The first in this tale is our current stop in the ongoing Darwinian journey from the primordial sea through that Cambrian explosion of species a half billion years ago.

Then, a mere 40,000 years ago, through a genetic mutation, we acquired our human-defining cognitive agility. While the science is unsettled, and discoveries reveal more each year, there is consensus that it was this moment when we homo sapiens became unique. Since the start of this initial “last mile,” our brains and nervous systems have effectively been those we have today. 

Our second “last mile,” however, will do more than define humans. Still ahead of us, the deluge of amorphous data that is our new primordial sea will define humanity. Coming far sooner than 40,000 years is a new kind of agility: the brains and nervous systems of data that will give us cognitive enterprises and cognitive collaboration at planetary scale.

The Data-Driven Phase Transition

Some have likened my second “last mile” to a “phase transition,” physicists’ term for the transformation of, say, an H2O water molecule from a solid at 31 degrees Fahrenheit to a liquid at 32 degrees, and then again to a vapor at 212. Small increments of change; profound  cumulative implications.

It is hard to exaggerate the sweeping scope of this data-driven phase transition ahead. Which is why we must match that scope of change with commensurate tools. These tools are not the science fiction of the imagined “AI singularity,” an upload of our very consciousness to some computational cloud. Rather, what lies ahead is the very human-centric, cognitive collaboration which at we call Agile Data Governance. 

A bit more context to my analogy: we are far from the largest among our mammalian relatives, a  distinction belonging to the blue whale. Among our closer cousins, the primates, we’re not the fastest; the patas monkey of central Africa can run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. We share 98 percent of our genes with gorillas, but we certainly can’t match their ability to lift 10 times their body weight. 

All we’ve got going for us is our brains, forty millennia old. And this is the model by which we must now evolve the brains of our data governance — in this next “last mile” to a data-driven civilization. 

Cognition, Our Great Differentiator

So back to the ascent of our species and our competitive advantage that springs from the complexity of our brains — our cognition. This is the supreme prowess that leaves those other attributes in the dust. 

Certainly other creatures have skills, consciousness, and the ability to adapt. The ancient Greek storyteller Aesop observed a crow using its beak to drop pebbles into a pitcher, raising the water to the level from which it could drink. Chimpanzees use simple tools, can learn to communicate with sign language, and form alliances with others in their troop. Many animals that we eat, and upon which we impose great suffering, have deep emotional and social structures. This is one of the main reasons I’m vegetarian.

But human cognition, our differentiator, traces back to only a moment ago in our evolutionary timeline. As I discussed in my last essay, it is this trait that allows us to move beyond the virtues of size, speed, and brawn to acquire knowledge and understanding through experience, and then convert that insight to reason, creativity, and innovation. In turn, it is cognition that has given rise to the so-called “Anthropocene,” our current epoch defined by the impact of humans on geology, the ecosystem, and particularly climate change.

It is well established that this Anthropocene, a term for our age invented only in the 1960s, has given us the burgeoning of data, the new cellular structure of human-made 21st civilization. What is less established, even scarcely understood, is that we are only in the earliest moment, akin to that late nanosecond in our evolution 40 millenia ago that gave us cognition.

In this moment we will now yoke this metaverse of data to profound tools of cognition — the beginning of this second “last mile.” In my essay to conclude this series, I’ll share thoughts on the next steps in that journey.