Creativity vs. Big Data? An Interview with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Interview by Susanne Tenzler
Originally published on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog here.

Viktor-Mayer-Schönberger-300x165Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is professor of Internet Governance at Oxford University and also a faculty affiliate of the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. In addition to his recent international bestseller Big Data (co-authored with Kenneth Cukier), Mayer-Schönberger has published ten books (including the awards-winning Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age with Princeton University Press) and is the author of over a hundred articles and book chapters on the information economy.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair’s CONTEC Conference on 7 October 2014, he will offer a forecast for the publishing industry and discuss how “Big Data” can be used by publishing companies.

You once said, “Big Data is as important as the age of Enlightenment.” What did you mean by that?

Big Data gives us a new perspective on reality. As humans, we have always observed the world and tried to understand it. But up to this point the collection of data about the world was costly and time-intensive, causing us to try to derive knowledge from the smallest possible amount of data. In this “Small Data” world we have always oriented our institutions and structures of understanding the world around the fact that we had little data. This was sensible but only a crutch. Thus we have only had a somewhat simplified understanding of reality.

But precisely this is changing right now. In a growing number of cases today we can collect and analyze almost all data that is of interest, and derive insights in a scope of detail that had not been possible before. Even more: till now, we could only use data to attempt to answer questions we already had. With Big Data we arrive at questions posed from a new perspective that we did not even have before the beginning of data analysis. Put simply, this way we understand the world that surrounds us more precisely – in all its details and complexity – and therefore also better. In turn, this allows us to make better decisions.

Big Data is considered by some to be the rescue in marketing. Within the field of media, Big Data journalism even developed its own niche. How can the publishing industry profit for this?

Here we need to start by differentiating the role of Big Data: does Big Data only help to better sell well-known products and contents (as a kind of marketing tool), or does Big Data create new products and services that had only been difficult or not at all possible (Big Data Journalism). In both cases, Big Data produces added value but the second role is interesting in the long term because something new is created. Transferred to the book market, on the one hand this means that Big Data can help sell book (this has been proven for us by Amazon – regardless of how you regard the company itself – but still, it is said that 30 percent of the sales are based on product recommendations resulting from Big Data analysis). And it goes even further. Through this phenomenon we can observe and begin to understand which parts of the books are read, which flipped through or when precisely people put a book aside and give up. With a traditional physical book these moments can hardly be quantified, but can be with eBooks. This is not very relevant for marketing, but for the authors – as feedback for from the readers.

On the other hand, we have to consider how good stories are told in the era of Big Data – this can also mean (and here we have already been shown much by data journalism) that we have to become much more interactive, data-driven, visualizing narration than previous. Here is where a large an exciting field of experimentation opens up.

Marketing and customer relations receive an entirely new rank through Big Data. How can publishers deal with this? How do they have to change?

Publishers have to understand that they need to create value in this new world within the supply chain, especially for readers – and in a markedly different way than before. If they don’t, then they will be increasingly displaced by the new intermediaries, like Amazon, for example, because an online retailer like Amazon knows so much more about the customer and can offer many more products than a publishing house can.

I believe new publishing models will very certainly be developed. For instance, publishing house that not only tell a very compact story in their books but also as publisher itself and also communicate this well. This is demonstrated very nicely by a rebel in the industry, TASCHEN: with a compact digital presence, with its own shops, so the books won’t be stuck in some corner of a book shop, but are rather front and center, and with the product itself, which is dramatically based on the visual. Of course this isn’t the only way, but it is one way. Which path fits for a publishing house has to be decided by the publisher itself – but they are unquestionably in demand.

To what extent is Big Data a topic with newspapers or book publishers? Have the supervisory boards realized the relevance?

My experience to date has been that Big Data has been perceived as a danger, if recognized at all. That is not a good recipe for dealing with impending challenges. In essence, dangers are a challenge to act. Whoever doesn’t act because they doesn’t believe it’s import, passes over it or will destroy everything, and has already lost.

Human creativity vs. Algorithm – who will win?

Human creativity, no question! Because algorithms are less and less important, precisely in the era of Big Data. Knowledge isn’t in the algorithm itself, but rather is hidden in the data. For that reason, what’s more important is the question: who will win – human creativity or data? And is there space (and necessity) for both because one can’t exist without the other.

Should publishing decisions in the future only be based on the analysis of data set – where is space for intuition, emotion, and creatively?

In the future, many more publishing decisions will be made on the basis of empirical decisions. And I’m completely convinced this will clearly help the publishers who implement it correctly. But precisely if a publisher recognizes the value of data, then it will also recognize the limits of Big Data. And the necessity of taking human irrationality into account in addition to empirical data in decision making. Those who believe only one or the other work will fail.

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