Learning From Marshall McLuhan: IBM’s Watson Creatively Follows Behavioural Data Tracking

“The Airport Mentality”

I’m often reminded of a story I was once told by a former student of Marshall McLuhan about “airport mentality”. When Pearson Airport was building their new terminal, his marketing agency was asked to observe how people act in an airport setting during the construction of Pearson Airport’s new terminal in the 1970s.

He said that people would act outside of who they were, because airports are the only place in the world where we meet to go somewhere else.

However, with the advent of social media, he said that we are now surrounded by the awareness that we could be looked up online through social media, perhaps altering the “airport mentality” of acting outside of ourselves, and surely forcing some of us to be more honest, open and transparent in our personal and business relationships.

Marshall McLuhan Successfully Predicted The Future of Media

The once controversial Canadian media futurist Marshall McLuhan said in his famous 1962 book The Gutenburg GalaxyThe Making of Typographic Man: “If a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent”.

We’ve seen the new notes added to a melody in the music world where the most successful musicians are the ones that now have the ability to go cross-genre. They have the ability to make a new brilliant sound like the multiple award winning Arcade Fire that we couldn’t quite put a finger on.

When a new note is added to a melody, like McLuhan said.

The speed of which the social, smartphone and tablet revolutions took off in a few short months and years opened up so many new possibilities that we live in a confusing digital media landscape that continues to evolve at an unprecedented pace.

It’s true- for all the people that work in digital media on a daily basis, everyday seems like a life-altering moment in this industry.

As a result, most of us see the current media landscape as vague or opaque, as we can’t keep up with the pace of technological change like the new generation, the Millenials.

Others, of a more liberal minded view, whether visionary or pragmatic, see light at the end of the tunnel, a translucent view of how the rapid evolution of media is changing the world.

IBM’s Watson

Of that visionary mindset, despite the struggles of artificial intellegence over the last few decades, was IBM’s David Ferrucci and the creation of Watson, which defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy from February 14-16.

That was the day the world realized IBM’s vision had come true, that Watson had become pragmatic.

Watson was a showcase of IBM’s technological prowess in proving their “building a smarter planet” strategy, which also recently includes moreintelligent cities for cash-strapped mayors, and advances in cloud-computing.

The book Final Jeopardy by Stephen Baker details the incredible lengths Ferrucci and his team went to, against all odds, against the will of IBM’s employees and the Jeopardy team at times to make Watson succeed.

Watson went on to win “person of the year” at the Webby awards, which honour Internet Achievement, just recently.

Behavioural Data Tracking, Beyond Traditional Web Analytics

There’s a chapter of interest that details what’s next for Watson, which correlates with the strategies of BlueCava and Ringleader Digital in using digital fingerprinting technology to gain behavioural analytics, which I spoke of months earlier here in what was the current digital advertising landscape.

At New York Internet Week 2011, one of Neal Mohan’s six predictions of innovation was: “35% of campaigns will use metrics beyond clicks and impressions”.

In Stephen Baker’s chapter “Watson Looks for Work”, he details how Catalina Marketing uses a highly sophisticated process  to conduct 600 to 800 marketing campaigns a year, from numbers and back again and says: “But each campaign, on average, gobbles up a month of a statistican’s work”.

Baker profiles Eric Williams, Catalina’s chief technology officer who says: “If I don’t have to go to statisticians and wait while they run the data, that would be huge….you’re talking about turning marketing on its head”.

Baker continues: “His dream machine, of course, sounds like a version of Watson. Its great potential, in marketing and elsewhere, comes from its ability to automate analysis- to take people with their time-consuming lunch breaks and vacations, their disagreements and discussions, and drive them right out of the business. The crucial advantage is that Watson– and machines like it– eliminate the detour into the world of numbers”.

However,  Baker says that Jurij Paraszczak, director of Industry Solutions and Emerging Geographies at IBM Research sees versions of Watson fitting into a number of industries but contends: “Watson’s such a baby”.

Data and Marketing Automation Aren’t Everything

The latter might explain why the Canadian Marketing Association recently invited me to an event at the Microsoft Canada Headquarters where it says in the event synopsis: “Expertise in such non-traditional marketing disciplines as mathematics and statistics will become the competitive advantage for future chief marketing officers”.

Just remember that data alone never wins- it’s how you interpret those statistics and how well you understand society as a whole.

For there are two kinds of people in the world- those that see things as black and white, and those who don’t.

It’s those that don’t see things as black and white who will succeed for I believe that the greatest competitive advantage you can have as a technologist is seeing nothing as clear-cut, but seeing beyond the numbers, seeing how things can be manipulated to fit into other industries just as IBM is currently doing with Watson.

That will be the true competitive advantage of a chief marketing officer, unlike how Microsoft and many other companies want you to believe that marketing and data automation is everything.

And if Eric Williams’ imagination serves him right- would that type of competitive advantage really matter a few years down the road for a chief marketing officer to have distinctive knowledge in?