There is still a difference between causation and correlation, whatever era we live in
A view from Sue Unerman

There is still a difference between causation and correlation, whatever era we live in

"Too long, didn't read". Microsoft's chief envisioning officer, Dave Coplin, swept into our offices this month to remind us that behind every bit of tech, there's a human being.

Coplin described the symptoms of the digital deluge on the average human, one of which is that you can’t manage to concentrate on anything lengthy. It has yet to happen to my e-mails but, apparently, "TLDR" is now the dismissive response you can expect to any e-mail longer than a sentence or two (including your sign-off with best wishes).

We’re the first generation that has really had to cope with the DD (digital deluge) and we aren’t all coping with it very well, according to Coplin. We don’t concentrate, we skim everything, we can’t put our smartphone away even when we're with our loved ones, and we’re incapable of effective multitasking even if we’re women. (Personally, I love to multitask – however, this might be because I am not so great at only doing one thing at a time. I believe one bit of activity enriches and enhances another. Coplin has research, though, that proves me wrong – so there we go.)

Coplin provides a solution to the DD: the systematic use of data. He talks about a paradigm shift from the world of causation to the world of correlation. There will be lots of data, lots of patterns; and, rather than proving causation in it, we can rely on patterns of correlation. I agree with a good deal of the spirit of what he says. I cannot agree with the overall argument.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind you: Post hoc ergo propter hoc. The Latin saying, which translates as "after this therefore because of this", is a well-known fallacy that assumes that, since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.

Well, quite often, it isn’t. There are a number of famous examples of this. One from less digital times is that, despite the fact that the cock crows each morning before sunrise, its crowing does not cause the sun to rise. Or, to take another example, there's a graph that shows a correlation between per-capita consumption of mozzarella and the rise in the number of civil engineering graduates. Does one cause the other?

You need rigour as far as interpreting data is concerned – and perspective. Plus a good algorithm.

There is much to be valued in the Coplin view of the world. He also talked about a "Copernican shift" that is on its way. At the moment, we gravitate around technology. As I sit here blogging, I have three phones and two screens – and an impulse to check all of them. Coplin speaks of a new era soon in which technology revolves around us instead and will act as our perfect executive assistant, personal coach and valet.

No more TLDR. Technology will read it for us and decide what to do. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom