On moving the box, not the whiskers

A lot of institutions and data scientists are keen to take the best of the best and make them better. They are working with elites in terms of intellectual ability, the socio economic lottery that takes intelligence and operationalises it and all the other bits and pieces that go into that.

These institutions and data scientists are working with the whiskers of the population box plot. They’re taking the people on the upper edge of the distribution and they’re keen to push them further out: to achieve more, do more, create more. Bravo! This is important and should continue.

Box plot

However, there’s another group of people that I think need to learn data science skills in general and to learn how to code in particular. Australia has no national workforce plan: but we know and acknowledge that data is at the heart of our economy going forward.

In order to make the most of our future, we need a large number of people in the box to learn the skills that will give them access to a digital, data driven economy. These people are not elites. They often do not believe they have a strong mathematics skills set and they don’t have PhDs. But we need them.

Data science in general and coding in particular is a useful, important skill set. There will always be space and need for elite data scientists, trained by elite institutions and mentors. But we also need to start thinking about how we’re going to move the box, not just the whiskers.

If you think about it, the productivity gains from moving a small proportion of the box upwards are enormous compared to moving just the whiskers.

No man should be an island

Insularity may be the catchword in the aftershock analysis of Brexit, but it’s not confined to elites. We are a society clustered into islands of opinion. Our insular communities are separated from each other by opportunity and circumstance. They develop their own novel views of the world we live in. As the British referendum last week showed, these can be fundamentally different world views not easily bridged by arguments of economic rationality.

There has been much made of the insularity of elites and failure to heed the rage of the disenfranchised that resulted in the Brexit decision. There have been parallels in the U.S. with Trumpism while here in Australia too, there are similarities to be drawn.

Focus has been on the elites and their system, but little attention has yet been paid to the scaffolding by which a system fails to engage with its constituents to its own detriment. The phenomenon of insularity reaches much further and goes much deeper down the chain.

We have developed insular communities within our own cities. Communities where we think similar thoughts, have similar incomes and even speak in similar ways. The radial income distributions of our major capital cities (higher in the centre, decreasing as you move away from the centre) is striking. These patterns of income mean that the people at the school gate are more likely to come from similar incomes to you than not. Given our understanding of the relationships between education and income, there is also a good chance that the person on the treadmill next to you at the gym is also from a similar socioeconomic background.

The problem is not just insular elites ignoring the constituents that scaffold their power. The problem is that housing affordability has reduced our opportunity to interact on a daily basis with friends who are not like us. Conversation with friends is very different to professionally interacting with clients, our barista or our child’s school teacher: all of whom may live at a distance from us.

We form our world views with our friends as a social barometer. Social influence has a noted relationship with behaviour. If our social circle narrows to those only living a similar life to our own, our exposure to differing opinion may do the same.  We may find ourselves living in an echo chamber of our own views, unable to understand the passionate and different opinion of our fellow citizens without recourse to simplistically ascribing their beliefs to a lack of understanding.

The mocking commentary of regretful and fearful Brexiteers illustrates our inability to understand what compelled them to make their decision in the first place. Our eye-rolling supersedes our desire to engage. The memes were eye-wateringly funny, but when our examination of the phenomenon stops with the retweet button, we are further insulating ourselves from the uncomfortable reality of disagreement.

In Australia, our election campaign has been seven long weeks of avoiding uncomfortable disagreement. The government has not been willing to push for a sweeping policy agenda. It’s a move designed to keep the focus off the possibility of disagreement and firmly on the reassuring mantra of “jobs and growth”. Avoiding electoral discomfort only serves to further isolate communities already unheard and unremarked upon by party influencers. We are literally being asked to “stick with the current mob for awhile”.

Why do we congregate into islands of opinion? Neil Gaiman suggests that we are fearful of the consequences of disagreement or, simply, being wrong. This is an age when every opinion is recorded forever and those disagreed with may be mercilessly abused with consequences for harrassers rare enough to be newsworthy. Threats of violence are as common place as they are unacceptable. Opinions are also laudable if static, but not if they change. Elite changes in opinion are categorised as backflips and turnarounds suggesting a gymnastic talent not otherwise known amongst the blue tie wearing classes. Mere ordinary citizens must make do with online mockery in all its forms.

Caution in expressing opinion or inviting disagreement is a reasonable response. We retreat geographically in the face of economic pressures and we retreat socially, online and otherwise, in the face of object lessons meted out daily in our social media channel of choice.

What should we, as a society do? Withdrawing into our islands of opinion, we risk failing to understand each other. The Brexit is an example of the ultimate consequence of this. Trumpism may be another. In Australia, the proliferation of far right microparties, each certain of saving Australia from some peril, is one manifestation.

Neil Gaiman makes the suggestion, that it was in part a deep rage that allowed his friend and co-author Terry Pratchett to create as prolifically and effectively as he did. As individuals we need to risk even the deep discomfort of rage in the pursuit of understanding our neighbouring islands of opinion. Shaping society is a creative pursuit, after all.