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Short Story
1711 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Harnessing Big Data

by Nancy Ford Dugan

On her way to the sex-toy shop, Beth bumped into Hugh and his family.

What were the odds? She was rarely on Mercer Street and had quickly stepped into a store to warm up for a moment after the chilly walk from the Spring Street subway station. Holiday shoppers were cluttering up the narrow streets and knocking into each other with their oversized gift bags.

It was a Kate Spade store. There was Hugh in front of her, looking baffled, windblown, encased in a puffy parka, staring at her blankly. They sat next to each other twelve hours a day, Monday through Friday, in an open office on Park Avenue. But here she was, out of context. A saleswoman walked by and admired Beth’s coat. “I love that purple.”

“Oh, thank you.” Beth smiled and then said “Hello” to Hugh. His two bored, blonde, teen-aged daughters glanced at her as Hugh introduced them. His wife wandered over from another section of the store and smiled genuinely at her.

“We’ve all been deathly ill for the holiday,” said Hugh in his clipped British accent. Beth stepped backward.

“No, no we are healed,” said the wife with a laugh. Hugh, though, encouraged Beth to be careful and stand apart. Grisly details of the illness were shared: toilet hugging, virus factoids, bathroom floors slept on, etc.

“We thought maybe it was food poisoning,” said the wife. Beth calculated when she’d last lunched with Hugh. Was he germy then? Had they eaten anything similar? She deduced it had been two days before the holiday break, so she should be okay.

After their polite good-byes, after her purchases later at Toys in Babeland from an emaciated sales girl with a ring in her nose—who had discussed her clit in more detail than anyone ever had—Beth carefully folded her new items and the brazenly labeled store bag into her eco-friendly sack out of fear she’d once again run into Hugh’s clan in the neighborhood.

In a few months, Hugh would be fired and would relocate to a new job in Amsterdam. Beth hung on and on, clinging to her job as if it were a life preserver floating near the Titanic. New bosses appeared and disappeared on a regular basis. The cost of farewell lunches and Papyrus “good luck” cards mounted. Even Eduardo, the shoe man, who came every Thursday to polish the executive’s shoes, was going back to Brazil. He was tired and suddenly muddy faced. Beth wished him well, and as she shook his hand and thanked him, he held his other hand to his heart, with tears in his eyes.

Beth signed up for free webinars to try to update her skills and understand the fury to harness big data—all the rage. She attended meetings where her “superiors” overused the words “cadence” and “sticky” and brayed phrases like “let’s not boil the ocean.” Metrics were everywhere, measuring things no one cared about but that looked impressive on a PowerPoint slide.

On the webinars, Beth would get distracted by the multiple messages invading her computer screen: join the conversation; chat; join the call; multiple attendees are typing; press *1 on your phone, or use chat below right. She was exhausted by the nonstop commands and could barely concentrate on the webinar’s content. It was like a demanding religion. There were so many rules of participation.

She helped Hugh’s replacement choose his executive photo for the org chart. Little squares of Jerry multiplied endlessly across the page. They all looked demented, artificial, and the same. Jerry forced his introverted cheek muscles in an unnatural effort to smile, something Jerry never did in real life. Or at real work anyway.

Jerry had recently told Beth that a picture of her at a team building meeting, where her colleague had his arm around her and a deflated basketball on his head, could be used at her wake or retirement party, whichever came first.

“There’ll be neither,” Beth said.

“Oh?” Jerry seemed surprised and returned to his spreadsheet of data. Jerry had a webfoot, which, like the details of Hugh’s family virus, was too much data for Beth. She didn’t want to visualize any part of Jerry’s body, including his feet. Feet he apparently planned to walk on to her nonexistent wake. Although who’s to say her nonexistent wake would occur before Jerry’s?

Statistically speaking, big data would propose hers would occur first. But she was siding with [William Bruce Cameron]1 who once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” She wasn’t convinced big data could solve the mysteries of the universe, fix the economy, or find the Malaysian jetliner.

Where did the expression “who’s to say” come from anyway, Beth wondered? That was a piece of big data she’d find interesting and useful.

At the early morning introductions at the team building meeting, Beth confidently took the microphone when it was handed to her. She stared a moment at the tense, tired faces in the room. For a moment, she considered singing a song to break the ice and wake (or at least slightly cheer) everyone up. A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in your pants.2 But would they recognize any song she chose to sing? Instead, she returned to business; she was data-centric, not eccentric, in her remarks. When she finished, the meeting facilitator joked how comfortable Beth seemed with the mic, unlike everyone else.

A deep-voiced statistician at the meeting talked about the “level of missingness” from their employee engagement survey. It occurs, he explained, when survey information is not completed; it confounds the stat guys why folks don’t answer all the survey questions. Beth thought it was obvious: if no one wants to reply to a particular question, could it shout any louder that this is the problem in the eyes of the employee? And wasn’t using the word “engagement” in a work context, as opposed to using it for a euphoric state prior to nuptials, a bit of a stretch? Were employees supposed to be euphoric at work, even in the midst of layoffs?

At the afternoon session, they had to talk once again about their Myers-Briggs scores. This outdated psychological assessment tool, based on Jungian theory, was designed by a mother and daughter. Beth thought this piece of data should immediately disqualify it as a valuable assessment tool. Who’s to say any mother-daughter team could assess the human race? Or agree on how to categorize all of humanity? Beth and her mother couldn’t agree on breakfast.

Beth had been forced over her long career to take the test multiple times, usually receiving the same score. But she always worried about her results; she knew she had issues with authority. She even had issue with suggestions. But who’s to say that’s a bad thing?

They showed a scatter diagram of workforce demographics at the meeting.

“See, this is very bad,” said their VP. “See this cluster? We have way too many old people. This is a crisis.” The VP had a smattering of faint, watercolor green lines smudged on her cheekbone, like delicate etchings on an Easter egg. “Oh,” the VP laughed, when out of concern that it was ink or an injury, Beth quietly asked about it during their break, “that’s where my dermatologist got a little rough during my monthly injections.”

After the meeting, at the team-building dinner activity, Beth had an unexpected victory in the Skee-Ball event at Dave & Busters. It required no skill other than realizing that tossing the ball into the circles worth 100 points yielded a higher score than wasting efforts on those only worth 50 points. This, she supposed, was harnessing big data in real time.

Back at the office, a twenty-something on the “wellness” committee asked Beth if she would do a testimonial. “I heard you play tennis regularly, and I think it would be great if someone as senior as you can speak to the benefits of wellness.” Beth watched his lips as he continued speaking and inserting the word “senior” every few seconds into the conversation. Beth was confused for a moment whether he was referring to her status at the company but then realized she was inflating her position, and he really was just using a code word for old. “It’s so amazing someone as senior as you can exercise regularly! I hope you will consider it, doing a testimonial.” Beth sighed and mumbled, “We’ll see.”

Maybe instead she could do a testimonial on her unexpected Skee-Ball victory. It had pleased her to beat all her surprised younger colleagues, even if it was an insipid activity and her progressive eyeglasses had hampered her in the basketball challenge.

Who’s to say that an invisible, older worker like Beth—whose gynecologist had filled out a sex-toys prescription for her (things were closing up); whose Myers-Briggs score had suddenly shifted (perhaps as a result of trying to survive in the face of corporate downsizing) from years of charmingly matching Nelson Mandela’s score to being a dead ringer for the inhumane Steve Jobs and Margaret Thatcher (even though Beth doubted any of them had actually taken the survey); who had recently been stopped on the street by a stranger who insisted she would benefit from collagen and eye serum (“Do you sleep on the left side?” he’d asked. “Your face is so flat there.”); who had never even been to Amsterdam; who had her own level of missingness in grasping the need for nonstop fucking data—who’s to say she couldn’t successfully and repeatedly (with glorious stickiness and cadence) toss a grimy round object up lanes into ridiculous concentric circles and KICK BUTT at Skee-Ball? Who’s to say that couldn’t be memorialized by a testimonial, along with the deflated basketball head photo, to convince the company she was skilled, ready to take on anything thrown at her: an Iron Lady, competitive, metrics-savvy, engaged, and fun?

Who’s to say? Not Beth.


* Notes from the Webmaster:

1 This quotation, commonly and persistently misattributed to Albert Einstein, is from Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking, a textbook written by sociologist William Bruce Cameron (Random House, 1963). Misattributing the quotation to Albert Einstein apparently began in the mid-1980s, or thirty years after his death in 1955.

2 Philosophy of Chuckles the Clown from episode #500, 25 October 1975, of the sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Scripwriter David Lloyd created the character, and the quotation that has become part of North American vernacular—and which appears here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Nancy Ford Dugan’s

work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (in 2012 and 2013) and has appeared in over 20 publications, including Blue Lake Review, Cimarron Review, Passages North, The Minnesota Review, The Alembic, Euphony, The MacGuffin, Epiphany, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and The Open Bar (blog at tinhouse dot com). She lives in New York City and previously resided in Michigan, Ohio, and Washington, DC.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury