Google is Making the Same Mistakes as the Vietnam War ‘Big Data Dictatorship’


Writing in the MIT Technology Review, Kenneth Cukier of The Economist and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of Oxford University explore the ‘dark side’ of big data, through the lens of former U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara.

McNamara was Harvard Business School’s youngest-ever professor at age 24, and further built his reputation for cold analysis by helping lead the team of ‘Whiz Kids’ who turned the Ford Motor Company around in the 1950s. At Ford, McNamara’s inflexible demands for data goals forced factory managers to dump excess inventory into rivers.

But McNamara was still effective! So much so that he was tapped as President Kennedy’s secretary of defense only a few weeks after being named president of Ford. For war, McNamara reasoned that the best metric for success was simply enemy body count — a number that was published daily in newspapers, a “data point that defined an era.”

Only 2% of American generals agreed with the ‘body count’ score as a measure of success, and many of the numbers turned out to be exaggerated solely to please McNamara.

The authors don’t stop at McNamara in explaining the ‘dictatorship of data,’ pointing out that Google’s fetishization of SAT scores and college GPAs were used long after they were disproved as having any effect on job performance. And then there’s the infamous method Marissa Mayer used to select the company’s colors — by forcing her staff to test 41 gradations of blue to see which ones were used more.

The numbers-obsession, it seemed, worked out for Mayer, and Google, although the authors seem convinced that the Silicon Valley folk somehow lost their humanity in the process. McNamara, at least, admitted that “we were wrong, terribly wrong” to go to war in Vietnam, although he still he held confidence in the death-count data until his death in 2009.

Take heed, entrepreneurs! Use Big Data at the expense of your very soul!