The Real Nature of Information

We all know what we know, or so we say and believe. We know ourselves, our family, our friends, our profession. We are, though, really surprised when what we think we know turns out not to be true. For example, we think we are healthy, then we find out our arteries are clogging up, and we might have a heart attack. Our children say that they are doing fine at school, then one turns up with a report card full of D's and F's. Our long-time friend from childhood tells us that he (or she) is gay. Our skills at our job turn out to be inappropriate for some new technology.

Information, even our most trusted, closest-held information may not be what we think it is. May not be true, may not be relevant, may not be sufficient, may even be lies, intentional or unintentional. In this age of ever-more universally available information from both public and, once, private, sources, it is vital to understand the real nature of the information that affects your life. It can be critical to you making good decisions about your life, personal, professional, and societal. An example to illustrate the latter: What are the nature and quality of the sources of information that you use to decide on how to vote for your political candidates and issues?

This expanding collection of short essays focuses on many aspects of information that we normally don't think about. These aspects, though, may be important to consider if we are to be better prepared to survive in a world where the amount of available information and the distribution of information by subject experts, lay persons, and those intending to deceive or exploit people are expanding exponentially.

As an information professional (uh, "librarian"), I am very concerned about the the fact that most people do not understand that the availability of information and the ability to access it does not confer verity or usefulness on that information. I am concerned that most people do not put out the effort to validate the quality of the information, the authority of the providers, particularly since with have so many more ways of receiving information (Web sites, email, blogs, forums, wikis, social networks, text messaging, cell phones, television, radio, commercial databases, etc., etc., etc.).

So, the essays. I hope you find them thought-provoking, even useful. - john hogle

(Note: If underlined, the link is active.)

Change may be the only absolute

Amost nothing remains the same. Understand it. Get used to it. Make use of it.

Experts, everybody else, and you, or, just whom do you trust?

Do you want a surgeon who went through medical school and who has lots of experience to operate on you, or would rely on a consensus of people who do not have medical degrees but who have a lot of anecdotal information on the ways to respond to a certain medical condition?

Sometimes you only get the information someone wants to give you

Ever use a Web site that lists a series of "recommended" Indian (or Mexican or ...) restaurants in or near the city whose name you entered. Are those really "reviewed" and "recommended" restaurants, or did the restaurants buy themselves into the list. Too much information is really nothing more than something that someone wants you to know.

Cost-benefit analyses - Always your friends

A fundamental aspect of everything we do is the weighing, conscious or unconscious, of the relative benefits of our actions versus the cost (effort, time, money, etc.) involved. This is no different for the acquisition of informationi.

Faux tools for searching for information

There are numerous Web pages, numerous so-called search tools whose only purposes are to deceive you, to get you to go to contracted Web sites, to make money off of you.

You, me, everyone is naive. It's okay if....

Me, you, everyone knows virtually nothing outside of our family, friends, vocation, and avocations. It doesn't matter if you know how to find the knowledge that you need.

Bias is wired in

We are all the sum total of our knowledge and experiences and emotions. The consequence is that virtually all information has some kind of implicit bias.

Information is Local, Regional

What you know about grapes is not what they know in the Sudan or the Napa Valley.

Information in Universal

One and one equal two. We accept that as being a universal truth. It will work in the United States, in Malaysia, on the Moon, and on a planet circling a star in a galaxy ten-billion light years from here. A lot of information is constant, being the same anywhere. With the Internet, television, and other media , it can be carried anywhere it isn't and be the same thing. Changes in language and cultural perceptions and values can temper the meanings in Tolstoy's War and Peace in Ecuador , but the essential story remains the same.

All, Yes ALL, Information Could Be Erroneous

One and one equal two. We all accept that, but .... The "but" is that I had a mathematician (actually a doctoral student in math at UC Santa Cruz) show me some math that brought the simple equation into doubt for a specific situation. We know what we know. We believe what we believe. But ....

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

Why did you buy that BMW when BMWs have such a miserable repair record? Oh, you got an email from your bank , and it says to send your Social Security Number and Driver's License Number and credit card number to verify your account. (By the way, DON'T DO IT!!!)

What You Do Know Can Hurt You

You've found a lot of information that says comfrey is good for you. You decide to use it. Too bad you relied on what herbalists, herbal vendors, and anecdotal sources of informationi. Why didn't you read the peer-reviewed scientific/medical studies that say there the herb is dangerous?

Filter, filter, filter

The more sources and volume of information that you have, the more difficult it is to sort out that which you need or want. The basic strategy is to use suitable filters in the form of software, print, hardware, and mental.

You don't care that you don't know very much

Generally, we don't care about things that we don't know much about. Do you care about how stainless steel bathroom railings are manufactured? Do you care about the relationship between native Fajians and the Indian population? Do you care if the president has a mistress? Well, maybe that is an exception. Why don't we care? Reasons include: not enough time in our lives to care about those things, difficulty in finding out about them, laziness, etc.

Personalization has advantages, but it is also dangerous.

With Yahoo, Google, MSN, and other Internet portals, we can personalize our entry into the Web universe. We can choose what we want to see, read, hear. We are our own "gatekeepers," rather than the reporters and editors and photographers and filmakers of the newspapers, magazines, television, and motion pictures. But, taking just what we want has a very big downside.

The blathering of the West, the East, and everywhere

On page 9 of Andrew Keen's 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur, he asks the question, "What happens ... when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule?" This is what he believes is happening to the Internet, to a media, to all communications and information.