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After ‘Elvis’


Mar. 27, 2015 – I saw Elvis last night, not the Elvis, but a play at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., that chronicled his life, music and relationship with Tom Parker (the Colonel). I was not a big Elvis fan growing up, but the play moved me and the story it told left me with a simple thought: his was a remarkable life, and an unfortunate death. I wanted to know and experience more, so I did what many of us frequently do; I started YouTubing him.

I started with my favourite songs — Suspicious Minds and In the Ghetto — and then I came across a suggested link for Unchained Melody, a song made famous by the Righteous Brothers. I was awe-struck by his talent and passion; he took an already great song to a higher level. From there, I had to check out the Righteous Brothers’ own version of the song, and then onto the soundtrack for the movie Ghost (with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore). From there, I followed the suggested link to Sinéad O’Connor’s version of Nothing Compares 2 U. Near the end of the video, I asked myself the same question from other nights spent music surfing: “how did I get here?”

It’s the power of big data, analytics, search optimization and profiling — all the new technologies developed during the still gestating Internet and information explosion age. Every link I clicked on in that recent journey was a suggested link — a link “they” (the technology creators) believed I would want to experience next. All I did was input the initial emotional clue; I was thinking about Elvis and was moved by the passion of a song. The rest was technology.

It was an equally scary, and mind-boggling, revelation. Every step we take, and every click we make, is added up, logged somewhere, and then analyzed and used to predict our next purchase, impulse or action. There’s a huge data collection engine at work, and it not only follows our steps and actions, it tries to nudge them towards a purchase or desired outcome.

We tend to think of information technology as an outbound medium that delivers content to us, be it information or entertainment, but that’s only the obvious part of the picture. The other part is its tremendous capacity for gathering up information, sensing and storing it, analyzing it all to derive meaningful information, and acting on it. Actionable information is king.

Speaking of king, or in this case, the king of rock and roll, Tom Parker realized this connection when he discovered Elvis Presley. Others may have noticed the unique talent that the young man had, but what really convinced the Colonel of Elvis’ future success was his observation of the reaction of the fans. While other talent scouts noticed the performers, Tom Parker took notice of the audience. To him, that was the key information, and he acted on it. When the media was present at any event, he directed their attention not to Elvis, but to the hysterical audience. He saw the local frenzy and he broadcasted that. He used television (and before that, the press) to capture that critical information. A few years later, the same technique was employed when the Beatles landed in New York. (You can barely hear the Beatles music on the Ed Sullivan show over top of the noise of the hysterical audience. That was by design.)

As I sit here and write this column, I realize that I am unintentionally heading towards an unexpected conclusion — that it is possible to shape future habits and patterns in human beings by making objective observations, drawing intelligent conclusions from those observations, and then presenting actionable information in a timely and appropriate manner. The actual inputs are all empirical (they are what they are), and the decision to act or respond is still the individual’s, but in between is the power of technology’s ability to derive and convey actionable information. “Big data analytics” make intelligent predictions of future possible behaviours based on empirical observation and accurate analysis of past events.

The late 1970s are said to be the start of the information age — for better or for worse. Emotions move us, but information shapes the way we feel. Perhaps it has always been this way, but the multiplier in this information age is technology. Like all other technologies, it’s ours to choose to use wisely. It shouldn’t be ignored.

This column previously appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.