Blogs  / December 30, 2014

7 years of Intelligibility

by Rebekah Iliff

Happy between week: the most highly anticipated time of year for yours truly. I’m not sure if it’s the lull in work tasks post Chrismukkah, or the anticipation for “starting anew”…but whatever the case, I love this particular time of the year.

I have jumped – no, leaped (more graceful if you are attempting to visualize) – to the assumption that, like me, you will spend an ample amount of time this week reading, organizing your Netflix queue, business planning for the New Year, and setting goals for how you are basically going to killit in 2015.

Oh, and obviously you are allocating a wee bit of time for “sale shopping,” because that is the economical thing to do.

If you’re not doing any of the above, and rather, you are sitting around lazily on the couch eating holiday leftovers, I commend you. You’re my hero. And please keep reading on because, despite your general lack of motivation at present, I believe you can still process the information.

This between week, I have momentarily set aside my PR hat and dug deep into the recesses of my Philosophy-degree trained brain, which I knew it would come in handy eventually. I would like to pose a theory about the next seven years (it takes balls to make long term predictions, high probability of being really really “off”) – mostly in terms of business and how it may affect us as communicators of digestible information rooted in data.

The initial philosophizing began a couple of weeks ago when I read a few particularly poignant excerpts from my current obsession: Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. German Rhodes Scholar and economic advisor to a handful of governments, E.F. Schumacher, wrote the book and the original version was first published in 1973.

How’s that for evergreen? I highly recommend it.

Excerpt #1 (page 89):

When people ask for education they normally mean something more than mere training, something more than mere knowledge of facts, and something more than a mere diversion. Maybe they cannot themselves formulate precisely what they are looking for; but I think what they are really looking for is ideas that would make the world, and their own lives, intelligible to them.

When a thing is intelligible you have a sense of participation; when a thing is unintelligible you have a sense of estrangement. “Well, I don’t know,” you hear people say, as an impotent protest against the unintelligibility of the world as they meet it. If the mind cannot bring to the world a set – or, shall we say, a tool-box – of powerful ideas, the world must appear to it as chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena, of meaningless events. Such a man is like a person in a strange land without any signs of civilization, without maps or signposts or indicators of any kind. Nothing has any meaning to him; nothing can hold his vital interest; he has no means of making anything intelligible to himself.

Excerpt #2 (page 90):

Estrangement breeds loneliness and despair, the “encounter with nothingness,” cynicism, empty gestures of defiance, as we can see in the greater part of existentialist philosophy and general literature today…

…So what is the cause of estrangement? Never has science been more triumphant; never has man’s power over his environment been more complete nor his progress faster. It cannot be a lack of know-how that causes the despair not only of religious thinkers like Kierkegaard but also of leading mathematicians and scientists like Russell and Hoyle. We know how to do many things, but do we know what to do?

In my opinion, these excerpts couldn’t be more relevant to modern culture. From a distance, it appears we are desperately trying to weave together pieces of information (let’s call it data) from a variety of sources (some dependable some not) in order to create a cohesive narrative that will provide us meaning; or in the very least, an explanation for WTF is happening around us.

The “Twitterization” of our culture, compounded by multi-channel communication and democratization of information, has left us bereft and “estranged.” Not because these things aren’t truly great in terms of innovation, but simply because humans require – as Schumacher puts it – “a tool box” to construct some sort of intelligible existence. Too much data, without enough conclusive thought or meaningful application, provides a breeding ground for chaos and disillusion.

Before going too far down the rabbit hole of Philosiphization (add that to your list of top words for 2015), you’re probably wondering what the heck this has to do with you?

Here is the short of it, in 7 bullet points; then I will defend my posish and throw a question back to you for pontification– because, Ah-hem, apparently that is what a Philosopher does:

iStock_000015104775Small#1 – Business cycles (i.e. fluctuations) tend to happen in 7 to 11 year increments.

#2 – 2007 to 2014, roughly speaking, was a cycle in which we experienced a recession and partial (note: not complete) recovery.

#3 – When chaos (i.e. a downward spirals/recession, Schumacher would say “unintelligibility”) takes place, we seek massive amounts of data and information so that we can analyze what happened and (hopefully) avert future occurrences of said chaos.

#4 – As a result, a demand for data (now fueled largely by technology – shall we say “big data”) increases; we become fixated on “how”. How did this happen? How can we avoid this in the future? How do we use this data to make decisions? How can we create an intelligible world again?

#5 – Eventually, demand is met. We have abundance of know-how then are subsequently pushed over into supply-side economics; in which there is a wealth of supply and demand must be created or met to avert another recession, or chaos. We shift from “how” to “what.” What do we do with this information? What big ideas are coming out of all this data?


#6 – Over supply of data requires a demand for ideas and thinking; and creative people are required for this demand to be met. Creative people who possess an aptitude for communication make the world around us intelligible. They have the ability to take disparate data points, weave them together, and develop something cohesive so that people, markets, industries can go “Ah-ha, that makes sense. Now I get it.”

#7 – 2015 to 2022 will reflect a cycle in which businesses and people value ideas and thinking rooted in data more than the information itself.


We are exhausted. We have too much data and too many options. We ultimately feel disconnected and estranged because of the lack of structure forced upon us from an open-ended, information rich system. Mere know-how, as Schumacher puts it, has reached a point of diminishing returns.

So we know how many likes we have on Facebook.

So we know how many retweets we got on Twitter.

So we know how many customers are reading, or unsubscribing, or sharing our emails.

So what?

What we want now are answers, and big juicy ideas that will enable us to catch up with the supply (data) in meaningful and compelling ways. “Garbage in garbage out” is no longer an acceptable business practice because, frankly, we don’t have time for that shit!

While extremely self-serving, the moral of the story is this: in totum we have reached an interesting inflection point in the business cycle whereby the application of ideas and thought to massive, often unstructured data sets, will generate a tremendous amount of value for an organization.

If you are a tech decision maker at a company – this is the question you should ask when deciding what to buy: is this an intelligible solution that provides me with extreme order, or does it leave me confused and disillusioned?

If you are creating a technology to serve a specific customer ask yourself: does this solution shift the customer from chaos to order, and by having access to our technology do we rid them of feeling estranged and rather, make them feel like an active participant in the process?

And – drumroll please – if you are a communicator, know that it is YOUR job, and no one else’s, to figure out how the hell to ensure the rest of us understand the what.

It’s a tall order…but if done well and with extreme focus, you will own the next 7 to 11 years.

How’s that for a New Year’s resolution?

Pontificate. Discuss. Let us know your thoughts below…