29 Jul 2014
When big data is discussed, we rightfully hear a lot of concerns about signal-to-noise ratio. Amidst the rapidly expanding galaxy of information surrounding us every day, most of what we hear sounds like meaningless background static. We are so overloaded but underwhelmed by information, perhaps we are becoming tone deaf to signal, leaving us hearing only noise.
Before big data burst onto the scene, bursting our eardrums with its unstructured cacophony, most of us believed we had data quality standards and therefore we knew good information when we heard it. Just as most of us believe we would know great music when we hear it.
In 2007, Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist and recipient of that year’s Avery Fisher Prize, an award given to American musicians for outstanding achievement in classical music, participated in an experiment for The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, whose article about the experiment won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
During the experiment, Bell posed as a street performer donned in jeans and a baseball cap and played violin for tips in a Washington, D.C. metro station during one Friday morning rush hour. For 45 minutes he performed 6 classical music masterpieces, some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.
Weingarten described it as “an experiment in context, perception, and priorities—as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend? Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty?”
As Bell performed, over 1,000 commuters passed by him. Most barely noticed him at all. Very few stopped briefly to listen to him play. Even fewer were impressed enough to toss a little money into his violin case. Although three days earlier he had performed the same set in front of a sold out crowd at Boston Symphony Hall where ticket prices for good seats started at $100 each, at the metro station Bell earned only $32.17 in tips.
“If a great musician plays great music but no one hears,” Weingarten pondered, “was he really any good?”
That metro station during rush hour is an apt metaphor for the daily experiment in context, perception, and priorities facing information development in the big data era. In a fast-paced business world overcrowded with fellow travelers and abuzz with so much background noise, if great information is playing but no one hears, is it really any good?
Do you know good information when you hear it? How do you hear it amidst the noise surrounding it?