Information

Information. Content. Stuff. There’s a lot of it about.

The challenge in our information-rich society is to try to get information into our brains which adds to our world view – brings us, as individuals or business people, actual value – whilst wasting as little time as possible on valueless or value-poor information.

Traditional information sources are newspapers, magazines, books and TV – as well as verbal interactions with friends and colleagues. These all have different pros and cons. Let’s take newspapers, for example. They are a great way to find out about ‘stuff’ currently going on in the world (or a locality), or at least they seem to be. Actually what they are are curated feeds of, usually, subjective information. You can choose how much subjectivity you want in your “news” by choosing a newspaper which tries to deliver more or less of it. But with the best will in the world, the news you receive in a newspaper will only ever be the news which someone else thinks you want. The stuff that they think that you’ll pay for.

But let’s take a step back a minute and look again at information, and let’s do it from a personal perspective rather than strictly a business one. I hope to convince you that those two worlds collide. The diagram below attempts to show, using the classic Venn diagram, different types (and sources in brackets) of information , and vaguely how those sources overlap, amid a sea of information which is much larger. I’ve not even attempted to make this complete, neither in types of information nor in sources. But I’d like to point out that email and social media are two major sources of information that have been added to the sources mix. These really overlap with everything of course.

Venn Diagram of Information

An impossible problem: creating a venn diagram of information

What is in this sea of information? Not everything – if you think about it, “everything” is a pretty big plate – so this is all the information which is valuable to you. That’s a pretty big and ephemeral plate too, as who knows when something might become important in the future? But for most purposes, information is only valuable in the now – most of us aren’t terribly good at retaining anything which seems irrelevant.

If you buy a newspaper, the chances are that you will not read it cover-to-cover. You will skip over things which you think you’re not interested in. There is also a substantial set of information in which we might well be interested, but we simply don’t have the time to assimilate it and so assign it low value.

So, we have this heap of information, within which there’s a smaller subset of interesting information. Some of that information is low value, some of it is high value, on an infinitely sliding scale.

This is the basis for the revolution in information and people. A sliding scale of value, onto which information is mapped on a continuous basis from available sources. So we can create a new sort-of Venn diagram.

Information Importance

A sort-of Venn diagram showing information importance within a sea of available information.

Now we’ve abstracted away from information sources, and concentrated on information value.

Here’s the thing then. This is why I’m mentioning all this, as it’s key to my view of how communications technology will change our world. We must develop systems which aren’t just designed for information collection, but also for information selection.

Let me work an example.

You have a Twitter account, a Facebook account and a Google+ account. They help you to keep in touch with people who have interesting things to say – family and friends of course, but also people out there in the world who seem to share your views. You like your job in Tesco marketing and find it interesting, what you do there is part of who you are. You’ve got wide interests, but particularly you’re keen on the environment and concerned about human impact on it, you like dogs, you support Manchester United. If you’re a real human being, your likes and dislikes would actually fill a large novel, but let’s stop there.

So all those information sources we started with can feed you information on all these things that interest you, both personally and professionally. But they’re unconnected. You can buy two different newspapers and get a 70% overlap in news stories… With a paper copy it’s easy (though perhaps galling as you and the environment have already paid to have it printed) to flick past the items you don’t want to read.

In the digital world, everything comes into your computer (or computers). So flicking past stuff works a bit differently. Instead of a couple of passive newspapers you have multiple accounts delivering multiple feeds of information, some of it the same but from different sources. What you essentially have is a backlog. If you find you don’t have time to read your newspaper, you’ll probably just chuck it in the bin so it gets removed from your backlog, same with a magazine or TV programme. But your digital backlog includes things you don’t want to miss, and depending upon how the feed works it may never remove itself from your backlog – it’s always there waiting for you!

This is a mixed blessing. A huge backlog is a stress-invoking thing.

So the technology we need is a tool which manages your information backlog. It mines your information streams to pull out the high-value information, and thrust it into your face. So this means that important emails, texts, social media posts, appointments, phone calls, TV programmes or whatever else is an input gets presented to you very clearly. It hides low-value information unless you’re done with everything else, and ditches anything of no value.

Essentially, we need an automated personal assistant who knows us intimately and works completely on our behalf. This is a complex problem, but not insoluble – simple techniques of keyword matching and analysis of user feedback could work very well, but detailed meaning-based analysis would be even better.

It’s also a very new problem, and whilst it’s common to find people complaining about email overload, and of how they never have time to read Facebook, its not common to find people talking about how these problems, which most people attribute to the delivery system, do need to be overcome if we’re all to make effective use of all this information.

Some people, I’m sure, would say: “So what? I don’t need all this stuff, I’ll just live like I always live but, if my newspaper gets delivered to my iPad instead of being printed, that’s just a format change!”

Indeed, this may be possible. But just as we see a gap emerging between those who are “connected” and those who are not, leading to a reduction in employability and a general lack of ability to participate in all sorts of things from cheapest mobile tariffs to home shopping delivery, a failure to embrace the changing face of the information age will also have negative effects on those on the trailing edge.

The beginnings of these tools can be seen in public services already on offer. I use Google for most things, and it’s clear that Google are heading this way. But they, of course, are following their own corporate aim: to make money through search. Everything they do is about that.

We need a product designed with our interests in mind, not Google’s.

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About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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