Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Information Problem

We have too much content, not enough information, and surprisingly little data.

The great futurist Alvin Toffler predicted a world with relevant data so profuse that information overload would be the inevitable result. He was wrong. The 21st Century does not have a problem with information overload. It has a problem with Content Overload.

You might think that I'm splitting semantic hairs in order to make a polarizing statement, but perhaps it would help my case to point out that the surfeit of content on the internet is of varying informational value. Quite a bit of it is opinion, and much of the stuff that is purportedly informational is of questionable truth value.

It's important to make a distinction between content, information, and data. While I'm not suggesting that there's anything inherent in each of these words that usefully distinguishes them, it is clear there are definitely three different phenomena which can be distinguished, regarding the stuff we take into our brains.

Content is what I'll call all print and digital "stuff" in general. This definition of content would include movie reviews, lolcats, sports scores, et cetera. Information is content which can be assigned a truth value. That gets tricky, because an opinion piece is clearly not information in and of itself, but may contain information (or misinformation). Data is a special kind of information, that appears in tabular or numeric form. The universe of Content and Data can be seen as a scale that runs from the lowest density of fact to the highest.

Data is not always foolproof, as Charles Seife identifies in his data-in-journalism analysis, Proofiness. A lot of figures are either half-right, made to appear to support erroneous conclusions, or just plain made up. Of course, that makes any informational statements based on these data unsupported, and opinions formed around this information, misinformed. To hear Seife tell it, there are a lot more errant conclusions out there than accurate ones--which leads me to believe the following:

Nearly everyone is wrong most of the time.

The most logical solution to being wrong is to check facts to make sure they are accurate before basing opinions and decisions on them. If this were possible, it would certainly make for a much better world. Unfortunately, verifiable fact is hard to come by. In many cases, scientific studies have not been done (or cannot be done). Worse, sometimes results of different studies conflict. Exercise science and nutrition seem especially prone to this: one month, authorities say it's essential to focus mostly on cardio, the next, weights are the thing. Fat used to be the killer, now carbs are. Any attempt to be consistently right, even most of the time, is probably doomed to failure.

Unfortunately for us, the number of decisions we have to make every day appears to be increasing. From financial choices, like bank selection and the use of credit cards, to consumer choices about everything from insurance to running shoes. Further, it seems as though the options we have are also increasing, adding even more difficulty to the task of human decision-making, and making the human life experience a multi-decade pratfall.

As a shortcut to making decisions, we tend to lump like decisions together, as a pattern. We may then seek to explain these patterns with a narrative. For example, my wife loves to shop with coupons. Her decision-making pattern is that if we don't absolutely need a product right away, she doesn't buy it at full price, or even close, ever. The narrative behind this pattern is the idea that companies engage in promotional deals to catch unwary shoppers off their guard, but that by putting in a little extra effort, you can subvert these deals to make your shopping exceptionally cheap.

The progression in my wife's example is from individual decisions, to patterns, to explanatory narratives. This is a practical approach to decision making. The reverse is the ideological approach: to take the narrative and impose it on practices and individual decisions. There is nothing wrong with the ideological approach if you use it to govern decisions made without a thought for immediate outcomes. Ethical decisions, for example. One deals honestly because the narrative of "Honesty is the best policy" embodies a state which the decision-maker wishes to attain, not because it yields a direct benefit. When you use the ideological approach and expect a specific result to a specific decision, things get crazy.

This is because narratives are based on, again, patterns made from lots of little decisions, which the narratives then explain. When the method by which the narrative was built is unknown, the truth value of the narrative is obscured. Using content in the place of information or data in order to make decisions is terribly dangerous. Using unverified information as if it were verified is terribly dangerous. Analyzing data incorrectly is terribly dangerous. And yet, this is what is happening in decision-making all over the world, from households to governments and beyond.

Data in and of itself is incredibly powerful. Bringing up Seife and Proofiness again, it's clear that attaching a number to a fact is a shortcut to credibility. But humans are notorious for misreading and abusing data, and creating narratives based on these tortured numbers. Here's an example debunking a mostly harmless myth about pet ownership.

What I'm driving at is this: humanity might make better decisions if we would take what's reported as news and science, et cetera, with a grain of salt. This proves exceptionally difficult, because in reacting to one incorrect or incomplete narrative, we often create an opposing narrative that is just as incorrect or incomplete. There may not be a solution to the "Information Problem", but I propose that you, Dear Reader, go conduct your own studies to verify my narrative, and live by holding out judgment until proof is overwhelming.

1 comment:

  1. so basically this post is adding to our proliferating content...