Why the Dalai Lama is no doubt down with big data

The Dalai Lama, the co-founder of Adobe and the former chairwoman of Intel are on a stage together.

No, this isn’t a joke.

It was the scene at Santa Clara University last week as his Holiness joined with Adobe’s Chuck Geschke, Intel’s Jane Shaw and Monica Worline, of the University of Michigan’s CompassionLab, to talk about the importance of compassion in the business world.

The business titans and the self-awareness gurus had plenty to say to the 400 or so at the Leavey Center about treating employees well and looking at competition as a way to push everyone higher — and about how all that can help push the bottom line higher, too.

The Dalai Lama with Jane Shaw, Monica Worline, his translator, Chuck Geschke and SCU's Kirk Hanson

The Dalai Lama with Jane Shaw, Monica Worline, his translator, Chuck Geschke and SCU’s Kirk Hanson

But I had come seeking a different answer. As I sat in the basketball arena, I wondered about big data. It’s what I do now. In my new job, I’m surrounded by big data. And I’m not the only one.

You’re surrounded by big data, too. It informs your medical care, your shopping experience,  your politics, the policing in your neighborhood, and even your morning commute, for that matter. We live amid rivers of data flowing past, around and sometimes over us.

But like so many technological advances, big data is simply a tool. It’s what you do with it that’s important.

And so I wondered: Is big data, and all it can tell us about ourselves and our world, a help in achieving self-enlightenment; or is the noise it produces a hinderance to searching inside ourselves?

I sent the question up to the stage on a 3-by-5 card, but alas, a direct answer was not coming from the Dalai Lama, who sat calmly wearing his familiar maroon robes with a hint of saffron at the shoulder and a harmoniously matching Santa Clara University sun visor.

But no direct answer didn’t mean no answer. In fact, toward the end of the session, the Dalai Lama gave a nod to the importance of cold, hard facts. It can be a mistake, he said, to rely only on emotion as we work to conduct ourselves in a compassionate way.

“Sometimes we tend to confine the understanding of compassion to just the level of sentiment,” the Dalai Lama said, at times speaking through an interpreter. “We don’t appreciate that there is another dimension which we can bring.”

In fact, when we examine anything, presumably ourselves included, we need to rely on intelligence, “in order to investigate, in order to look objectively,” he said.

And while, in some ways, the worlds of spirituality and self-actualization seem at odds with the world of big data, why wouldn’t we want to turn to facts to help answer some of the universe’s biggest questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of pain? How do I define true happiness? What do I value?

Knowing the facts, the Dalai Lama said, “creates a calm mind. “With a calm mind, then you can investigate the reality.”

But as big as big data is, maybe there are limits.

Kate Greene is a San Francisco writer who’s written about deploying data, including an essay in “The Human Face of Big Data,” Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt’s impressive coffee table book on the subject.

She isn’t out to pick a fight with the Dalai Lama, but she does offer a cautionary note. There’s a danger, she says, in using piles of data as an excuse for avoiding the hard work of thinking about what makes us tick and what it is we want to make us tick.

“I believe that data, big data, the collection of data and the analysis of data, is often used to off-load the thinking part of solving a problem,” says Greene, who is finishing up writing “Reality Mining: Using Big Data to Engineer a Better World” with co-author Nathan Eagle.

In The Human Face, Greene wrote about the “self-tracking” community, a group of data-enthralled people who use wearable devices to keep track of their eating, sleeping, “walking speed, heart rates and even calories consumed and expended.”

She cites data of her own that shows that almost 10 million self-tracking devices were sold in North America in 2011 and that the number of people signed up as members with RunKeeper, an app for runners, reached nine million by late 2012, more than quadrupling in two years.

All of which could be great, Greene says, as long as users see the information as a start to understanding their physical selves and not as the end of the journey of discovery.

The same holds, she says, for those who would rely too heavily on data to drive their own self-awareness.

“If you’re looking for the ultimate in self-knowledge, you can collect all the data you want,” she says. “But if you’re not checking back in with how you feel yourself, then you’re not ever going to get to 100 percent.”

And so back to my question: Is big data a help or a hinderance when it comes to achieving deep self-awareness?

It seems the answer is yes.

That’s my take, anyway. Let me know what you think in the comment section below.

(Photos by Chuck Barry, courtesy of Santa Clara University)