Imagine a cigar sitting on a table. What does that image mean to you?
If, in your mind, you picked it up and toyed with it, smelled it, cut the end off it and lit it up, does that mean you were playing with a penis, or just that you craved a good smoke?
Sigmund Freud saw meaning and symbolism in everyday items. Some of his more famous conjecture involved the notion that cigarettes and cigars are symbols for the penis. Freud felt strongly that human behavior could be explained by the repressed emotions of youth, asserting that common objects like cigars could be seen as symbols.
“Cigarettes and cigars can symbolise the penis. They are cylindrical and tubular. They have a hot, red end. They emit smoke that is fragrant ( = flatus = semen). …
I refer to the reason, or at least one of the reasons, why people start smoking (and of course, why they go on); that is the phallic significance of the cigarette, cigar, and pipe. It is thus a substitute for the penis (mother’s breast) of which they have been deprived (castrated, weaned).”
The "International Journal of Psycho-Analysis," 1922.
I remember an episode of "Star Trek – The Next Generation," in which the ship’s counselor worked with the android character, Mr. Data, to interpret the images in his dreams. Imagine the trouble that an android, a machine, would have interpreting images of any kind, let alone images in his android dreams. The line that I remember, “Freud even said that ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’” best summarizes how difficult it is to interpret data.
When I work with clients, I see internal conflict as people struggle to reconcile their natural decision-making process with the process that they think they should follow. In the business and trade press, we read stories about how companies use data to make decisions. These articles assert that leading companies make data-driven decisions using data warehouses and business intelligence systems. Business managers read these articles and attempt to depend solely on data to make decisions. Many find the effort difficult because the idea of basing a decision on data alone conflicts with their intuitions about decision-making.
Some of these articles do their readers a disservice with their brevity and lack of depth. Do readers not realize that leading companies do not solely depend on data to make their decisions? Do the articles gloss over the fact that data is just one factor? Clearly, the problem is a combination of both factors. However, reading both the academic and trade press, I see articles that emphasize positive outcomes and omit mention of other factors that influence decision-making, like emotion and intuition.
Business has always focused on metrics, measurements, and data in management. Accounting, the tracking of the money that flows through a business, dates back to the age of Leonardo, when Brother Lucia Patchouli spread the gospel of double-entry bookkeeping to the merchant world. Fredrick Taylor provided the catalyst of scientific management in the early 20th century. Modern management philosopher Peter Drucker fortified the concept of using data to assist in the management process.
However, each of these management masters urged the use of data to inform and guide the decision-making process. Drucker clearly expresses the view that management must think deeply about emotional, cultural, and intuitive factors when making decisions about the future of the enterprise.
If we look at the current level of hype surrounding the concept of big data, it is not long before the idea reaches the zenith of expectations, where the gravity of reality begins to pull the notion swiftly down. There is great promise in the notion that our interconnected world of data creates opportunities to gain understanding. However, the reality is that data is just data; that the conversion of data into information, of information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom depends on more than just better data connections.
For data to become information, it must answer a question that someone is asking. That means that a person, a human, must ask a question. We may want to pretend that emotion plays no part in our decision-making process, but we know that emotion is the heart of a decision. We can use data, but to employ data we make decisions about trust. Do I trust the data? Do I trust the source of the data? Trust is an emotion. We either like the data, and trust the data, or we do not.
Small data, large data, big data — no matter the modifier, it is all just data. It is not information, not knowledge, not wisdom. The ongoing challenge is for people to develop meaning from the data they see. We use our life experience, our emotions, and our memories to interpret the data we see in life. We look at the data and ask questions about it. Data remains data until it answers questions.
Our questions help us interpret the data we see, converting that data into information. That information does not become knowledge until we actually put the information to use, until we apply the information to solve a problem. The moment we discover whether the information helps solve the problem or not is the moment of knowledge creation. Until that point, the information may help us form a hypothesis, but we don’t discover the truth of knowledge until we apply the information.
The quality of your information depends on the quality of your questions. If you ask useless questions, you create useless information. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in education is the way we educate. Think of an example in which you learned information in school simply to be able to answer the weekly quiz. Did it become knowledge? Perhaps, if you applied that information to solve other questions later in life. Information can lie dormant until application. Information has a shelf life, a time limit of application, depending on your memory and the changing condition of the world.
Wisdom comes with the repeated application of knowledge. Most of us believe that with age comes wisdom, though age is no guarantee of wisdom. Wisdom is a special insight, more than just experience, a special understanding and knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Wisdom is a product of practice, a product of deep thinking about a subject. Wisdom is a demonstration of how the knowledge of a specific subject can apply to other subjects.
Symbolism is a form of wisdom; an image or phrase can represent a complex idea. Freedom is a complex idea, an idea that we employ symbols to represent. For symbolism to work, the audience must make the connection between the symbol and the idea. If the audience does not have experience with the symbol — if they don’t understand the context of the symbol — then the symbol fails to work.
For Freud, a cigar could represent a penis. For people who did not share Freud’s knowledge or wisdom, a cigar was just a cigar. When we are looking at the meaning of data, we should keep in mind that sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.
By the way, Freud liked a good cigar.