The Second Age Of Information

Information may well be power, but the real value comes from our ability to extract meaning.

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Franz Kafka 

It seems that our reaction to the age of information is changing from ‘information is power’ to ‘OMG there’s so much information out there’.  With this comes the realization that the primary value is not the data per se, it’s the literacy to read it and ability to work with it and skills to elicit meaning from it. Information is not simply the data, just as meaning is not simply the information. It’s the connections, paths, clues and insights you can tease from it that become the new intellectual currency.

No surprise then that the data scientist is the hot job of the moment - the skill and knowledge to analyze and make use of data is far more valuable today than the knowledge of how to store data and manage it. But it goes beyond that data scientist role.

The first Age of Information was one of asymmetric information; a period when a select few held the information and many were kept in the dark, without access or means to use it.  The data activists, the citizen data scientists, the quantified selfers are changing this, and in turn this is opening up even wider use. Today we are in a transition period where individuals have access to more and more information, but we are also generating more and more data than ever before. This is why data literacy is so important, it’s key in enabling people to understand, work with and transform data into meaningful and actionable information.

The way to shift the needle away from asymmetric information is for people to actively engage with data. It's already happening in many ways. The first evidence came from access to information and the discussion of it - sharing what's known and personal experiences. You see this in the marketplace where buyer and seller now have roughly the same level of information when it comes to product purchases. No longer do I have to ‘trust’ the seller, I can check if it is the best price, if it is reliable, if the features are as good as they say.

Another great example of this change is in our relationship to our general or primary healthcare practitioner. For many of us, when we visit our doctors, we come armed with information and knowledge. We research and focus on the specific things relevant to us and create hypotheses before we visit - to better or worse ends. This sometimes means that the knowledge about this specific situation often lays with us in the discussion rather than the practitioner. The ‘General’ Practitioner may or may not know specifically about X or Y condition. We may have also brought with us health data, such as heart rate or blood pressure measurements or even our microbiome. And of course a host of ideas about what that data is telling us. For many of us the doctor is no longer the oracle and sage of the past, no longer the guardian to a world of information that we are not privy to. Today, much of that information is also available to us. The trick is, knowing how to find it, read it, understanding it and apply it to our individual situation.

This also varies hugely from area to area, doctor to doctor. If the General Practitioners' catchment is affluent and educated the chances are they will also be well informed. If not, then access to the information may not be available or the level of data literacy required may not be there. Asymmetry in information hasn’t disappeared just yet. But we can improve that, by improving data literacy. If we can build people’s skills in reading, working with, analyzing and arguing with data, we can embrace a second age of information that’s far more “evenly distributed”. One where we make better decisions by not only understanding the information we have but also being able to debate and interrogate the stories we are told.

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