The Fog of Information
I love the original Rollerball movie. It’s a nearly-classic 70′s film with James Caan as a futuristic sports hero playing an ultra-violent game against the backdrop of a sterile society controlled by global corporations. The narrative pits human dignity against a paternalistic, overindulged society where information is scarce, knowledge relative, and individualism a threat. Our hero, Jonathan E, fights against the prevailing groupthink, the futility of individual effort, and the relativism of truth. Of course, in the end (Spoiler Alert!) our hero triumphs against all odds to champion the dignity of human endeavor to a swelling soundtrack of Bach’s Toccata in D Minor. Not a great film, but one of my favorites with a single scene that haunts me to this day.
As the rugged individualist against a backdrop of drones, Jonathan E pushes to uncover information about the history of his world. In one scene, he travels to Geneva to ask basic questions to a liquid computer containing all of the world’s knowledge. But this oracle imparts only haphazard and questionable data. It is information without context obscured to meaningful answers. “Misplace some data?” Jonathan asks. “Just the whole thirteenth century,” responds the dizzy librarian simultaneously threatening and cajoling the machine to perform. “But it was only a few crusades and a plague or two. It doesn’t amount to much.”
In the end, neither the overly-fluid computer nor any character can answer our hero’s simple but significant human question: What are the real facts and how can I use this information to support my own knowledge, ethos, and reality? It’s chilling yet oddly familiar to many of us living in the current age of congested and implausible information sources.
Too Much Information, Too Little Functional Knowledge
In our world, information comes at us from all sides with the same lack of wholeness or trustworthiness. News outlets twist assumptions and conclusions to pander to their audience’s political predispositions. Social networks include feedback from all types of personalities with some good and some self-serving, and some just plain erroneous information. Companies provide product information scattered across knowledgebases, web sites, forums, and formal documentation with a corporate bias aimed at the prospective sale. Emails clog up our inboxes and authenticity is at a premium. The result is an overload of questionable information and little functional knowledge.
For example, try making sense of the global debate today in the U.S. using a search filter in Google or Bing. You will find charges and countercharges that pound each opposing camp like errant mortar shells without a fixed target.
Is global climate change real?
No it isn’t. See my expert*.
Yes, it is. See my expert*.
It’s not human caused.
Yes it is. Check out THIS web site.
No it isn’t. Check out THAT web site.
What can and should be done?
Nothing. Leave the markets alone until Miami submerges.
Move everyone back to the Bronze Age.
What is Cap and Trade?
The brass ring.
A first step.
*See the above experts.
All positions can be supported by “facts” on the Internet. But trying to ascertain simple information to make an informed decision with an overkill of unsubstantiated information is impossible.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that your fate is in your own hands. The Information Age puts you in control of your sources and news outlets and lets you form a basis for personal knowledge. For a few, the thirteenth-century didn’t really amount to much. For those in search of the thread of knowledge about Western civilization, it is the beginning of human civil liberties starting with the Magna Carta in 1215 that proclaimed rights for freemen, respect for legal procedures, and the beginning of English law adopted by all modern civilizations.
You’re on Your Own, Baby
Technology created this information overload and lack of trust, and through technology there can be deliverance. For good or ill, you can now glean your own information and create your own repository with an independence of thought and intent. You can create your own Associated Press with virtual news feeds, ticker tapes, and summaries that support your position and increase your knowledge without relying on the old reactive ways of taking in information.
In the coming weeks, I will be talking more about personal information and the use of personal aggregators using new technologies such as Linked Data sources, semantic markup, and information mashups that allow you to take control of the knowledge in your world. The intention is to build a personal information mashup of knowledge that encapsulates information from the Internet cloud without relying on the fog of disparate and random information sources.