[This post first appeared on Medium, October 23, 2017]
All social observers should (still) be asking themselves, “How did we miss it? How did we miss the rise of Trump?”
In a perfect world, we would have had some sort of “early warning.”
We would have detected “faint signals” that put us on notice.
I want to examine one strategy or tactic that we could classify as “early warning from big data.” I will attempt to show how Google helps twice, once with the autocomplete function and again with Google Trends.
Some time around 2010, years before Trump was a presidential hopeful, something dramatic happened to the search term “net worth.”
(Much of what follows is speculative. Hang on to your hat.)
I think you have probably seen “net worth” pop up as a Google autocomplete suggestion. You are putting in the name of an actor, say, and Google anticipates that the object of your curiosity is how much money this actor has made.
And I think (here comes the anthropological speculation) there was a time when people loved their celebrities generously and without qualification. They didn’t care about net worth. They didn’t think about it.
And then around 2010 this changed. (Possibly.) According to Google Trends (see the image above), some people began to care what celebrities were worth…not as celebrities, where their value is, to a real fan, inestimable… but in an economic sense.
Now, to be sure, some of these inquiries might have been admiring. Net worth might have served as an additional measure of the celebrity, outsized not just in their beauty and accomplishments, but in their economic standing.
But some of these Google Search queries may have sprung from another motive. It is possible, now to engage in still more speculation, that “net worth curiosity” was an expression of incipient resentment. People were asking because they were no longer unqualified in their adoration. The attitude was something closer to, “Let’s have a look at how this guy managed to get himself paid.” Admiration was turning to scrutiny. Adoration to skepticism.
There may be a zero-sum thinking in evidence here. The searcher was asking, effectively, “how much value has gone to you that did not come to me.” Or still more inquisitively, “how much value has gone to you that came from me. How much did you profit from my adoration?” This is truly zero sum. Your win was my loss. Your celebrity came at my expense.
All speculative. We would need to do the ethnography and talk to people who are using the search term. If resentment is at work here, it will surface soon enough and we will have a chance to map its origins and logic and imagine its outcomes.
[Let me just say that the big data players are, some of them, still inclined to suppose that their data are so big as to be self sufficient. All we need, they seem to say, is quantitative data. We can detect, infer and/or extrapolate the rest. This is sad. All you need to do is ask. And if you are a trained anthropologist (or other scientist) and even if you’re not, you can get straight at motive and logic. It’s there for the asking.]
But back to the larger methodological, future-casting opportunity here. Google gives us two instruments for early warning. One is the auto-complete function which is itself a statistically driven exercise. Google is playing back what people are using as a search term. And this makes it a window for those of us in need of continuous illumination. I have to say it would never have occurred to me to consider the possibility that people were asking this question. Auto-complete worked for me as a kind of “head’s up display.” I was asking about one thing and the Google data flashed before my eyes. This happens with every search we make. We dismiss most of the autocompletes. But sometimes we say, “Wow, that’s interesting. Why are people asking that?” We have just had one, fleeting, glimpse of a possible future.
There is a kind of serendipity function here. As a student of American culture and as a forecaster of American futures, I can’t possibly anticipate all the things I should be looking for. And in this event, it makes sense to have some device that peppers me with data points. Google’s auto-complete works just this way. It serves as a kind of “head’s up display.” Over the course of a day of Google searches, I will get, say, 50 opportunities to see something I would never have thought to go looking for. Effectively, Google’s autocomplete function is working as my “desktop dashboard,” a flow of messages from the deep space of the Google data sphere.
The second instrument is Google Trends. I enter “net worth” there and the results are very interesting. There is (see the image above) a clear starting point. So this is not a chronic, low level curiosity. It starts. And then it rises. We are looking at a social trend or cultural movement that erupts and then scales. Our attention is arrested. Am I right to think that these data can be read as early warning of a change in attitude towards the celebrity world and, perhaps, the creative class and coastal elites? Who knows? It would take a lot more research to know. But I am put on notice that there might be something “out there.” In a world filled with black swans, that’s valuable, especially when one of the swans is Donald J. Trump.
In the case of the ascendency of a Donald J. Trump, this “something out there” is a matter for something more than idle curiosity. Every strategist, marketer, design thinker, pollster and political party would have been well served by early notice. If there was something happening to the bed rock of American attitude and opinion, if there was a new order of alienation “out there,” we needed to know and the sooner the better.
Post script: Over the weekend I participated in an event on “Design, futures and happiness” at the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Thanks to Bruce Tharp and Stuart Candy for including me in a very stimulating series of discussions. Thanks also to Hal Varian and John Deighton for conversations over the longer term on Google as a window on the future.