The Tower of Babble – Where Truth Goes to Die

Once upon a time (the way every good fairy tale begins), a book or a paper by a Ted Codd or Bill Inmon would set in motion a sea change that swept us all in a new direction. We no longer live in that world. We now live in a world in which everyone talks, and nobody listens. In this world, the “Tower of Babble,” our desire for connections outweighs our desire for communication. The old aphorisms “a bias to action” and “just do it” no longer apply. Collecting “likes” from strangers has become the new “doing.” There are times, when entering one of these talk fests, that I feel like I stumbled into a self-help group or therapy session. Perhaps, we need to start each discussion with some positive affirmations, “I’m a normal form, you are a normal form” or “Codd give me strength to carry on.”

In many areas of endeavor, a level playing field is a good thing. However, one in which the cream can no longer rise to the top is not. When all ideas are equal, all ideas are equally good, and all ideas are equally bad. Persuasion trumps reason. An idea gets judged by the fervor with which it is expressed, not its rationality. If Ted or Bill published in one of the popular LinkedIn data focused groups today, their post would have a shelf life of less than an hour before it was superseded. Within a day, it would, for all practical purposes, be gone. The sober-sided reason with which they expressed their original ideas would doom them to click-bait deficient oblivion. If they, for example, suggested a “data lake” as the way of the future, some competitor would coin the term “data swamp” and kill the buzz. Can you just imagine “I designed a data mess” on your resume? I won’t touch “lake house.”

The pundits that make up the bulk of posts on some forums thrive because they are never judged by results, on whether they ever solve the problem to which they purport to have the answers.  The new pundits recycle the old ideas as if they were their own and the old ones use whatever sleight of hand they can muster to present their old ideas as new. I have concluded that nobody believes in any of the ideas they promote work. After all, the idea that they are smarter than those they give advice to is the package they are selling. Smart people would see evidence that these ideas don’t work all around. Is it because they are so perverse that they can continue to say, failure after failure, “the ideas were great, but the project failed for lack of management support.” Are we so gullible we believe them? If support faltered, who is to blame for that? Why was compelling evidence of efficacy not evident? How come, the CIO did not look at the return on investment and hear the siren song of the best-ever annual bonus? Can it just be that no one believes in what they are saying or does that not matter in the Tower of Babble.

A bit harsh you say, but show me that I am wrong. There are some consultants in the data governance space are thicker than flies around a lake house door. I don’t particularly want to pick on them, but I have been watching data governance efforts in major enterprises for at least two decades. Today, as it was for the very first imitative in which I was involved 20 years ago, the development of the maturity matrix, followed by the glossary was the promoted path. The one true way to reach data nirvana.

That first initiative failed (lack of management support) as has every one of the dozen or more I have been involved with since. I have yet to see a truly successful data governance effort.  However, another post on the importance of data owners, a business glossary, a data catalog, or data dictionary is a mouse click away. Data stewards, data custodians, data management, monetize your data assets, been there done that. The one obvious question I never see asked is “Why, if these ideas work so well, have we not seen any improvement in the state of our data?”  If we are getting so much good advice why are the problems are there? Could it possible that the solutions don’t work? Once upon a time (back to the fairy tale), we had a name for shills who preyed on the gullible. “Snake oil salesmen” I think was the popular pejorative.

There is a lot of talk on LinkedIn on topics like this. Ones that meet all the criteria favored in the Tower of Babble. Problems about which everyone can talk, but nobody is expected to solve. Some time back, I decided that a law could be coined to encompass problems of this nature. I call this “The Law of Intractable Problems.” The law goes like this: “If everyone has a problem, nobody has a problem.” That is, so long as nobody else solves the problem, there is no pressure on us to solve it. We can and do talk endlessly about them. But I have noticed, in the Tower of Babble that there is no appetite for change. What used to bother me is that these intractable problems would not get solved. Now, having recently posted a solution to one, I worry more that they will simply be posted at the wrong time of day and get lost in the traffic. Or, that nobody will care.

The value of these forums, I have decided, is not the quality of ideas, it is in the creation of reputations. Early in the piece, I realized that nobody who matters, nobody who controls a budget or would be considered a decision maker comes to these groups. They have a life. As soon as I finish this post and respond to a couple of others, I intend to get one as well.

It’s not that the pace of change has greatly changed. That is a common explanation. What we are actually seeing is what happens when entropy meets inertia. The problem we are facing is not change, but that nothing is changing. Don’t be fooled by the rash of posts about ChatGPT. That is just the latest shiny bauble. The distraction du jour for the chattering classes. It has nothing, and will never have anything, to do with the lives of 99% of the people working in IT. These people are increasingly realizing they are dinosaurs searching for relevancy in the world they and their predecessors created. That world is not one of which they can be proud. In a form of cosmic justice, we spend our lives trying to understand software that our predecessors were too busy to document, and we hand down code that we are too busy fixing to document for those who come after us. Don’t be fooled. Being a geek was never that cool, but at least our jobs held interest. Now, not so much. There is only so much satisfaction to be had from applying a patch to another snippet of bad code.

Of course, I am far from the first to see a downside to the rise of social media. However, as a profession or guild I think we have clung to the idea that somehow, we have risen above the trends we see in fields like politics. There is, we say no comparison to be made between our favorite LinkedIn group and Twitter. Our interactions are temperate, our language restrained, our arguments considered, our debates…. What debates? In practice, on a site like LinkedIn, there are none. At least, none of the sort that allow us to sort the wheat from the chaff. 

What we do have is a cadre of skilled self-promoters, consultants, self-described “experts” or “best-selling authors.” What on earth does that last one mean? J.K. Rowling is a best-selling author. Stephen King is a best-selling author. How can I break this to you gently… One hundred copies of your opus “Quiet Desperation – The Secret Life of a Data Architect” does not a best-selling author make. It only takes a few months of exposure to realize that in groups that tout tens, even hundreds of thousands of members most of the content is provided by a tiny few. Though the vocal few cannot literally be counted on the fingers of one hand, they most certainly can be metaphorically. If we were to discount posts from those promoting a product, a book, a service, or methodology, in which they had a vested interest there would be no content. And perhaps that would be a good thing? Does anybody know what anything means anymore? Does anyone know the best way to approach any problem anymore? The data lake may have been a good idea. We will never know. Once it became the data swamp nobody was going to touch it.

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Rodger Nixon

Rodger Nixon

Rodger Nixon is Data Architect with decades of international experience in enterprise data architecture. Rodger has been awarded several software patents including one covering the use of expert systems and natural language to perform the task of human application developers. The resultant product Gartner Group called “the first 5th generation language”. VP Data Architecture for two major financial institutions and consultant to numerous others. It is the future he saw coming for these enterprises that led him to develop the Open Data Model, SaaS software designed to reduce the costs and risks of software maintenance. In Rodger’s opinion, avoiding a future dedicated to the maintenance of crumbling legacy systems requires a paradigm shift in the way we develop software, one that is data driven. The Open Data Model is his vision of what the foundation for that change might look like and the project that now occupies his time.

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