Note: This is a brief meditation on my thoughts on information and education. I think anyone who follows the news understands how this issue has put the very foundations of western society, values, and progress at risk recently, so it has been on my mind pretty constantly.
I’ve been thinking a lot about information. Where it comes from, how much exists, how we access it, how we process it etc..
According to IBM Marketing Cloud, 90% of the worlds data was created in the last two years, and that growth rate is accelerating. Currently about 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created each day. This is generally a good thing. Data allows us to further academic research, predict patterns and trends, create better products and generally improves our lives in countless ways (we can talk privacy another time). So while on balance I would argue that the data explosion is a positive trend, I think it has a few particularly dangerous consequences:
- More data existing means more objectively false or generally misleading data existing
- More data increases our reliance on the gatekeepers/gateways through which we access that data
- The sheer magnitude of available data makes getting a fair sampling of information nearly impossible.
The first point is a relatively obvious one. I easily could have completely made up the IBM Marketing Cloud fact I gave above. I didn’t, but very easily could have, and when I published this piece, that complete fabrication would exist in the world’s cumulative database. With the world population now having unprecedented access to information and technology, not only can most people consume this information, but they can contribute it. Through stupidity, human error, and of course, through nefarious intentions, inaccurate or misleading data is being created at an equally unprecedented rate. Even if the proportion of accurate information increases, the overall amount of false information will continue to skyrocket.
The second point is where the real danger is. Historically information was funneled through a select group of gatekeepers, and while these gatekeepers were not always accurate, they were generally held accountable by their constituents. There certainly were purveyors of bullshit, but the well-defined gateways meant that people had greater exposure to more accurate information. So ya, I might get some wonky views from my pastor, or creepy Dave down the road, but those were well balanced by the news each night, the newspaper the next morning, the public education I received, and various other information sources.
The problem today is not that there is not enough accurate data and information accessible to me, it’s that there is far greater exposure to the ever-increasing sources of inaccurate information. So while I may now have access to evidence backed academic research on almost any topic, I am more likely to be exposed to a random blog, a FB comment, a marketed study with financial incentives to create a certain viewpoint, or worse, talk radio.
Worse still, the third point means that even if we had perfect information, the sheer quantity of information that exists means it would be nearly impossible to filter it appropriately. This problem is exponentially compounded by the tailored content that FaceBook and Google have perfected. When the main pillars of our online lives have business models that rely on serving us content we are likely to click, then it’s pretty safe to assume that content is not representative of reality. We all know online echo-chambers, and the biasing reinforcement that comes from being surrounded by those that agree with you. While historically those were just communities of similar interest that you opted-in to, today you don’t have a choice and it is impossible to opt-out.
I don’t need to even get started on the devastating impact this is having on the world. The tools that were meant to create an ideal state with perfect information and accountability are being used to manufacture fear, spread hate, distort reality, prioritize profit over truth and on and on.
I believe that fixing this problem is going to take a concerted effort from the technology industry, our major media players, our legislators, and our executive branch. However, in the long run I believe we need to radically redefine our education system in a way that combats this issue:
- Remove focus from rote memorization and regurgitation of information
- Focus on understanding how to query the specific information needed from an unlimited set of potential sources
- Focus on critical analysis of sources and evaluating the quality and biases of sources
Today, I can do every calculation I will ever need and find almost any information on any topic that exists in seconds from my bed. The winners in this paradigm are not those that can store the most data in their heads, but those that know how to filter through the noise and find what exactly what they need, as instantaneously as possible. Doing so requires deep training and subsequent understanding of the information landscape, in order to avoid confirmation bias and evaluate the strength of one’s source. Whether that means understanding of who funded the research that ran a study, understanding assumptions made in a report, or being presented with strong counterpoints, this will be a critical and potentially transformative solution to the information accuracy issue.
Now to figure out how to make this a reality.
Thanks for indulging me. Please shoot me any thoughts, disagreements or corrections!
Note: If you read this and concluded that this issue is the cause of CNN, the NYT etc creating fake news, you are part of the problem and should reevaluate where you get your information.