Brad Feld: Is Big Data Bullshit? Not Quite, But Don’t Be Distracted

If you already find it hard to contemplate the flood of data flowing into businesses of all kinds, just wait.

“Twenty years from now, the thing we call ‘big data’ will be tiny data,” said Brad Feld, managing director of Foundry Group. “It’ll be microscopic data. The volume that we’re talking about today, in 20 years, is a speck.”

But the point for entrepreneurs and innovative companies isn’t to simply gawk over the size and scope and speed of the data being generated, Feld told attendees at Xconomy’s latest sold-out forum, The Future of Big Data. The ever-increasing power of networks, devices, and computers will ensure that big data gets bigger.

The key, Feld said, is to figure out where you can make a difference. Terms like “big data,” after all, are just a label—and like most labels, it can get used so much that it starts to lose meaning.

“The approach of trying to label it and then cram a bunch of shit into that label is dumb. And it’s the same thing that the technology industry does over and over again,” Feld said.

“It’s OK to have a label to describe a phenomenon. But what’s really powerful, at least from my perspective as somebody who’s been involved in investing in and creating lots of companies … is to go one level deeper, and think about what it is you’re doing to impact this broad general phenomenon,” he said.

Here are a few more highlights from Feld’s discussion, which got our event off to a great start. In true Feld fashion, his message was a mix of insightful, funny, profane, and skeptical:

—Don’t let marketing noise obscure what’s real, and what isn’t. Feld said that in preparing for the speech, he wondered how to deconstruct the term. So he thought, “What if I Googled ‘Big data is bullshit?’” And there were plenty of results.

As an early stage investor, Feld says, he also sees a lot of this buzzword addiction being used to gloss over questionable offerings. Don’t be fooled.

“There’s a lot of people who assert that they’re doing magical new things with data, that we can’t tell you about because it’s so incredible, and just trust this black box and give us some money—and we’ll give you amazing things out the other end,” Feld said.

—The connections between machines, applications, and networks are perhaps progressing faster than many of us are really aware of.

“I believe the machines have already taken over, so I’m very comfortable with the idea that they’re just waiting very patiently for us. Because they have no incentive to wipe us out,” Feld said. “Humans killing humans is a human construct, not a machine construct. So I think the machines are going to treat us as pets.”

—Then again, the machines aren’t nearly smart enough yet. Today’s smartphones would have been called supercomputers 30 years ago, right? But shouldn’t the hundreds of people in the room have been able to connect instantly with the speaker, rather than having to remember his e-mail address later?

“I know I want this thing to be way, way smarter about what I’m doing right now,” Feld said, waving his own smartphone in the air. “If I’m wiling to tell it where I am, if I’m willing to say to it, `You can use where I am to do things for me,’ this is still a really dumb device.”

“This is not a mobile device. This is an organ,” he added. “How many people, is this the first thing they touch when they get up in the morning—other than their significant other or themselves? … How much data does this thing have?”

—Smart use of data might help prolong your hold on an audience. Feld was an investor in Zynga, and sat on its board before the company’s initial public stock offering. He’s no longer connected with the company, so he didn’t have any insight when emcee Greg Huang asked him what to make of the recent layoffs that have resulted in the shuttering of the social game company’s Boston-area office.

But Feld did say that gaming companies, like other content and media properties, are still struggling with the traditional curve of audience interest—it spikes when things are new and promotion is heavy, and settles out over time. If you’re lucky or good, that settled-out point isn’t zero.

“The interesting question is, can data help you understand what’s going on in that curve? Can it improve the experience for the users who stay with you?” Feld said. “And the real magic is to figure out how to put curves geometrically in three dimensions—and whether that’s multiple games, or multiple properties, or things that interact with each other, or another level of interaction through them, which could be a social layer of interaction. That’s where the real power is.”

Photo by KeithSpiroPhoto courtesy of Kendall PRess.

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