Santa Claus, Big Data and Asymmetric Learning

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

– Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction

This Christmas I had a wonderfully simple experience of why asymmetric rates of learning matter so much, and a simple way to explain it to friends and colleagues.

I have a young son. This is his first Christmas where he’s really aware of the whole Christmas thing: that there is a Santa Claus, there is a tree, people are being extra nice to one another. He’s loving it.

Naturally, part of the ritual is a trip to visit Santa Claus and so the other day, he embarked on his first visit with the big guy. Here’s a short version of the transcript:

Santa: “Hello Alec, would you like to talk to Santa?”

Alec: (with somewhat shy smile…) “Yes.” 

Santa: “So Alec, do you like choo-choo trains?”

Alec: (smile, eyes wide) “Yes.”

Santa: “Do you like Thomas the choo-choo train?”

Alec: (practically giggling, eyes super wide) “Yes!”

Reflecting on this conversation, all I can think is… no wonder kids believe in Santa Claus. I mean, here’s Alec’s first interaction with Santa ever and the guy, with no prompting, knows his name, knows one of his favourite things in the world, and even a specific type of toy related to that thing. Combine this with an appealing user interface (costumes, Christmas theme, and visitors treated like they’re very special) and of course it appears to actually be like magic. Alec must have thought Santa knew him personally.

It is easy to pretend this is something that only happens to two year-olds, but pretty much everyone I’ve met has, at one point, felt like LinkedIn or Facebook has been uncanny (for better or worse) in predicting a preference or connection.

The reality is there is just a massive asymmetry in learning. Most kids will have a single “Santa” interaction (or learning opportunity) a season – at most they’ll have two or three. Whereas a Santa in a shopping mall is going to meet thousands of kids (and thus have thousands of learning opportunities). Between these interactions and some basic research, any Santa worth his salt is going to pick up pretty quickly on what boys and girls tend to like and develop some quickly testable hypotheses about what any kid wants. Compared to the kids he meets, Santa is swimming in a world of big data: Lots of interactions and learning opportunities that allow him to appear magically aware.

The point here is that, as users, it is important for us to remember these things are not magic, but are driven by some pretty understandable tools. In addition, while we can’t always diminish the asymmetry in the rate of learning between users and the services they use, just understanding the dynamic can help demystify a service in a way that can be empowering to the user. I’m not going to ruin the magic of Santa’s tricks with my son, at least not for a few years – but I’m quite happy (and feel we are collectively responsible) to do so when it comes to online services.

Finally, it does show the power that increasing the rate of transactions can have on how quickly a system can learn. I’m spending more and more time trying to think about how systems – be they governments, non-profits or companies – can capture interactions and learning moments to help them become more effective, without pretending that it is magical – or infantilizing their users.

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