People often ask me if getting a MBA is worth it. Besides my belief that any kind of education is always worth it, I liked being back in an academic environment with smart and interesting people I could learn from. One memorable interaction I had was talking to a professor over lunch about his views on “big data”. Given how trendy this topic is in business circles, I was expecting another consultant type talk. Instead, I was in for a treat.

This professor was talking about teenagers and how we go through so many phases in life before figuring out our personalities, likes and dislikes. We are so impressionable in those younger years and need many different experiences to shape us. With the rise of big data, kids may not have that luxury anymore and end up being stuck with the choices they make very early on in life. Since everything we consume from books to music to news and search results is now customized based on our preferences, our exposure to things that differ from those preferences could be severely limited with big data which in turn will make our beliefs in those preferences even stronger. Does this mean that a teenage brat or party girl may never have a chance to grow out of those phases?

I don’t know but it’s interesting to think of how big data may affect our future generations. Back in the day of brick and mortar bookstores, a kid could have picked up a book on any topic and read it without knowing much about it. Who knows what new ideas or interests that would have sparked. Nowadays, amazon makes the choice for us on what we enjoy reading most. It’s a scary thought but Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that many of us read about in high school may not be that unimaginable anymore.

A friend of mine likes writing about “herd mentality” and how it’s affecting all of us. The growing polarization of political views and many other aspects of our lives is a good example of this herd mentality and sadly this trend will only grow with big data. What, if anything can we do about this? I don’t think the answer is blocking access to all our data since it’s not practical and there are many benefits in using technology to simplify our lives in today’s busy world. Instead, I would offer three simple ideas.

First, we should actively seek out interactions with people who are different and think differently from us. Yes, it’s a lot easier to have friends who agree with everything we say but we have no hope of learning and growing if we only hang out with people who confirm our own beliefs. Second, we should try to overcome “herd mentality” as my friend calls it and make our own judgments about our likes and dislikes. Finally, we should seek out diverse sources of information and diverse experiences to expand our horizons and constantly challenge our assumptions.

So, back to the MBA question, what I learned from my program was that a simple conversation over lunch with someone can give you incredible insights and spark great ideas. Why would we ever limit ourselves and our children’s potential to whatever google or amazon thought best for us?

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