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The unbearable fiction of facts

Don’t you find it amazing that in a country where people’s feelings, sensitivities, moods, prejudices and perceptions are such a dominant social phenomenon so little study is done into emotion?

We are constantly hearing politicians, media analysts and every kind of researcher chirping on and on about facts and, in the process, decrying perceptions.

I was shocked when I first encountered this form of mental paralysis in the late 1990s at Business Against Crime. While it was patently obvious that the perceptions of ordinary people were that crime was out of control, life was constantly under threat, the police were grossly inept and woefully out-classed and the ANC government couldn’t give a heap of lawn fertiliser for doing anything about it, their feelings, perceptions were arbitrarily and churlishly pooh-poohed by the very people who should have known better.

With the benefit of hindsight, I should not have felt so angry and frustrated at the time. After all, the bosses were all big-time business boykies who deal only in “facts”.

Judging by the terrifying torpor that prevails from Postmasburg to Pretoria and the attitude of our new flashionista top cop and king of bling, Bheki Cele, those mindsets that went out of fashion before the Berlin Wall came down still prevail. The perverted notion that keeping people in the dark is good for them because the less they know the happier they’ll be.

The idea was stupidity personified in 1998. In the wired world of Twitter, Facebook and search engine optimisation such ideas are downright bloody dangerous, aggravating rather than ameliorating the crisis.

Being active on more than 20 foreign and international research panels into everything from racial and ethnic attitudes to advertising and pharmaceuticals, I’m dumbfounded firstly by the dearth of the kind of research called “sentiment analysis”, and secondly by the superficiality of so much that passes for research these days — if anyone ever does research any more anyway.

Sure there are a number of reputable and authoritative organisations involved in research from the Human Sciences Research Council to Markinor to universities. From time to time the results of their work are published, but too often in a sanitised and politically correct format. Is it because the bean-counters and piper-payers are fixated on quantifiable data? Is it that they only comprehend the language of numbers and are discombobulated by human emotions, feelings and perceptions?

In the case of our bumbling authorities the answer is an unqualified “yes”. One just has to watch these semi-sentient organisms doing their little parliamentary pantomimes on TV to realise that, unless they have a couple of hundred numbers to fling to the four winds, they’re incomprehensible and as at ease as a long-tailed cat in roomful of rocking chairs.

Because of their shabby shambling examples, too many people who have to book the company brain cell months in advance think that’s the way to go — only they do it with recklessly ill-conceived PowerPoint presentations.

Ordinary Joe Soaps like you and me from New Zealand to New York were feeling edgy about where the economy seemed to be heading months before Freddie hit Fanny and the world’s economy fell out of its own bottom. But, hey, what do we know? We’re just ordinary Joes so we leave it up to the econo-monkeys. They’ve got all the facts.

Hah! Fat lot of good that did us.

Maybe that’s an extreme example and global economics probably shouldn’t pivot on hunches or undefined “feelings”. But when you have millions of people sharing their worries via Twitter or Facebook or email — and those worries are all ominously similar — you should wake up and toss the numbers.

The New York Times this week reports: “The rise of blogs and social networks has fuelled a bull market in personal opinion: reviews, ratings, recommendations and other forms of online expression. For computer scientists, this fast-growing mountain of data is opening a tantalising window onto the collective consciousness of internet users.

“An emerging field known as sentiment analysis is taking shape around one of the computer world’s unexplored frontiers: translating the vagaries of human emotion into hard data.

“This is more than just an interesting programming exercise. For many businesses, online opinion has turned into a kind of virtual currency that can make or break a product in the marketplace.

“Yet many companies struggle to make sense of the caterwaul of complaints and compliments that now swirl around their products online. As sentiment analysis tools begin to take shape, they could not only help businesses improve their bottom lines, but also eventually transform the experience of searching for information online.”

Associated Press did pioneering research into how the new news “consumers” of today get their news. But they did not follow conventional wisdom using market research tools and number crunchers. The AP researchers used sociologists and ethnographers in the US, Europe and India, and their methods were vastly different. But they took their findings beyond the cosiness of simply dumping data on the client; they deduced, inferred and advised AP on what it should do to ensure survival in a world where the major means of spreading news is the cellphone.

That meant completely rethinking the role of conventional news media, including the online media. It meant asking tough questions and implementing uncomfortable solutions.

That was back in 2007. And to date we have yet to see evidence that any major South African newspaper, radio station or TV broadcaster has paid one iota of attention to AP’s research findings.

Oh well. What’s that thing they say about taking a horse to water …