How information flow empowers innovation in the future

The flow of information, its density, volume and accessibility are essential underpinnings to a society’s innovation capacity. In this short series of posts, I’ve taken a historic perspective, looking at the information revolution in the middle ages, and at the technological and societal developments up to the 20th century, before turning to the 21st century and the dominant role of the internet today.

To conclude the series, I’ll dare a projection of the internet‘s role in redefining our fundamental ways of dealing with information; more specifically: How will the internet affect our ability to innovate in the future? Give the two-way relation between the internet and society, we can tackle this question from two angles: What are we doing with the information? And: What is the information doing with us? Let’s find out.

What are we doing with all this information?

In historic times, information was scarce and hardly accessible – information was precious. That value of information defined society’s way of dealing with it: information was collected, stored, hoarded; more was always better, regardless of potential utility. Today however, information is overwhelmingly abundant. Still, we keep treating it like a treasure, seeking to have more, to store more, to have access to more.

For our information future, we should promote the user’s ability to decide what is important and relevant – to filter information, to reduce information intake, to focus attention – without a patronising technology layer that pre-empts rather than supports the user in making these decision. The trends, however, are not only positive.

Big data is heralded as the great solution to our information handling challenge. To my mind, big data can be a tool for us to manage the increasing stream of data, to find context from the data itself, i.e., to find information in the data. But I see the danger that we’ll find only correlation without causation, that we find patterns without meaning. In essence, big data can help to distil information from data, but it doesn’t do the trick to actually obtain knowledge.

Long data is a means to overcome the present tense myopia of big data, trying to identify longer-term trends. Just think about Ian Morris and his investigation of social development. Or consider Hans Rosling, the man who makes data talk (as an example, just watch how he presents the development of health and wealth of 200 countries over 200 years: pretty neat indeed). Still focuced on data to information, though.

What I really miss is a discussion on big information, on big knowledge. While we’ve heard acclamations of the information society and the knowledge society (as well as the respective economies), I’m afraid that the best we have achieved so far is just the data society. It is as if we were drowning in an incessant stream of data; and that stream is certain to swell further with the Internet of Things. Big Data and Long Data will be useful in managing that data stream, but they are still lightyears from what is really necessary: progressing from information handling to knowledge generation.

What is all this information doing with us?

Seen through the eyes of the individual, the biggest change that the internet brought about is almost endless choice: the volume of available and accessible data and information has long outgrown a single persons absorption capacity; but now that ever-increasing volume comes through many different channels, serving one-to-one communication (e.g., e-mail, phone, IM), one-to-many broadcasts (e.g., newspapers, TV, web 1.0), or many-to-many engagements (e.g., social media). With today’s mobile devices that full spectrum of channels – and the wealth of data and information they connect – is always at your finger tips; 24 hours of every day of your life. At first glance that’s great, because you always have a choice. At second glance, I see an increasing dilemma, because you always have to make a choice.

This freedom of choice is a bliss, but it comes at a price: the responsibility to use it wisely. The incessant barrage of information causes stress, the fear of missing out as well as the fear of being disconnected. With choice comes risk: to make a wrong choice. Just a few illustrative examples: Do I want to send to one, to few, to many? (risk of using the wrong channel); Is the message appropriate for the channel I chose? (risk of sending wrong content), or Is the source credible? Is the content relevant? (risk of absorbing the wrong content). These and many other considerations shape our information handling behaviour today, and we are all to some extent challenged by focusing our attention on the right and the relevant, by selecting channels or sources, and by ignoring what is irrelevant. After all, we are a social species, and we don’t want to feel that we missed something.

Sherry Turkle has followed the evolution of information technology (up to its current level, which she calls “always on, and always on me“) and observed changes in our interpersonal behaviours. In a New York Times article on “The Flight from Conversation“, she recalls an interview with 16-year-old boy: he uses texting for almost any communication and goes on to say:

“Someday, someday, but certainly not now,
 I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

Having grown up with modern IT tools, he has not developed the skill to engage other humans directly, face to face, here and now. Rather, he prefers the impersonal, technology-mediated approach of texting; direct social contact is clearly outside his comfort zone, and technology shields that zone.

Now, you might consider this an extreme, and extremely rare case. So did I. In fact, I hoped it would be a rare extreme. However, Turkle has pursued her topic through decades of clinical studies, and she has delivered an impressive account of the effects of information technology on our behaviours in her book “Alone Together – Why we expect more from technology and less from each other“. Her observations sum up to a disconcerting conclusion: we tend to use modern information technology as an interface, as a moderation layer between humans, a layer that avoids direct communication, that prevents direct contact. And that’s not limited to digitial natives; rather, it affects individuals of all generations who make regular use of our modern IT tools.

Whether this is a conscious or a subconscious decision, whatever the underlying reason might be: such a technology interface, a moderation layer reminds me very much of the translator role that clergymen played before the Gutenberg Revolution. And it has similarities with the historic function of telegraph operators as well: to communicate and to access information, people depended on somebody or something to decode and translate. Is that what we want in the 21st century? Or is that an indication that we are moving backwards?

The future of our innovation capacity

On the technology side, we have made tremendous progress: we are handling more data and information, give more people access, employ a larger variety of channels than ever before, every second of the day. In that sense, you might conclude that innovation, i.e., the meeting and mating of ideas, has never been easier. Yet at second glance, what we observe is an increase in quantity and speed to a point where the perceived avalanche of data and information effectively makes it more difficult than before to hear the signal in the noise, to find the worthwhile idea.

In addition, we see a trend on the human side to increasingly rely on a technology interface in our information exchange and communication.  But if we let technology handle more and more of our information flow, then where’s the deeply human facet of “generating novel ideas”? Do we leave that to machines? Do we believe that machines could innovate? I for one am not convinced that this could be realistic. And even if it was, I am sure that this won’t happen already tomorrow, whereas the currently available information technology already demonstrates some negative effects.

If these trends were to continue, we’d risk to effectively disable the human element in the information flow, and to curtail innovation. We might face an ironic dilemma: we’d be sitting high and dry on the biggest stock of most easily accessible information in human history, while at the same time we’d have lost the capacity to draw the creative ingenius connections.

As an optimist, I consider Big Data and Long Data as steps in the right direction; they can help us manage the data and information avalanche. But they can only overcome a part of the problem. The other part is our very personal attitude towards human communication, and our willingness to engage human to human. I sincerely hope that we’ll devise ways to combine the best of both worlds: our human skills and our technological tools. The jury is still out …


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