Our need for real-time information consumption is pointless

What if we have instant access to all the data in the world? I’m flying about 38.000 feet above ground and I’m thinking about this question. It’s part of the mission of Google, everyone should have access to all information. It’s also fashionable in Silicon Valley. It seems there are a gazillion startups that aggregate data for us. We seem to have a never ending hunger for data and information. Where we once depended on storytellers, bards, poets, painters, writers, journalists, we now want to know everything written by anyone. Official information providers long thought they could keep a monopoly on ‘quality’ information, but it is now obvious that they have lost that battle. The consumer isn’t interested in “quality”. He wants to know it all.

We write blogs, create news, produce content, act as journalists, and there are plenty of platforms that allow us to spread our message. It doesn’t stop at news. We are eager to share personal information, wishes, needs, thoughts, ideas, emotions, friends, locations. To find information we use Google, news sites, rss feeds, aggregators, aggregators that aggregate aggregators, news feeds, tweets, social networks. Where news could take years to surface a few hundred years ago we now have almost instant and real-time access to information. Almost. The next evolution can be predicted, we will see the rise of real-time information systems.

If anyone can have access to any information at any time, what is then the value of that information? As transaction costs to produce, distribute and consume information drop to zero the question arises if the information value itself drops to zero too? My guess is that in many cases the data itself will have less value. That same data all platforms are now fighting a war over, the data that makes web 2.0 more important than the destinations of web 1.0.

Ironically there are at least two types of “data” thinkable that can never fit this real-time model and at the same time have tremendously more value than data that does fit that equation. Googling Stephen Hawkins may tell you everything there is to know about black holes, but it doesn’t give you any knowledge about them. Knowledge Stephen Hawkings clearly has. A deep understanding and experience that makes knowledge truly valuable. And all the processing power, disk drives and search engines of Google and the rest of the world can’t capture that. There are no short cuts to knowledge, no matter how much processing power and storage capacity we throw at it.

The other type is the storytelling that has been part of human culture as long as we have existed. And I am not just referring to the storytelling that allowed us for centuries to pass information on to new generations. I’m talking about our daily interactions. If I ask you to remember the last conversation you had that made you laugh or cry, chances are pretty high that this conversation was a real-life one, not an online one. It could be a conversation with a loved one, a family member, a good friend, even a colleague. When we interact with each other, we create. We tell each other stories, we share experiences, we define history together. It could be the most difficult conversation you have ever had, but it can just as well be as simple as having a good laugh with a friend, or watching a sunset together. The information that we exchange is meaningless. Unless you were there, because then the information is priceless.

It is for that reason I tend to be rather skeptical of our current online efforts to get information to us via search, sites, aggregators, rss, social networks, soon all in in real-time. Sure it has value, but that value diminishes quickly when the transaction costs drop to zero. These developments are technological in nature. We solve this problem because we can. And when we have solved it, we will find that all the information in the world doesn’t give us a lot of real value. It just gives us convenience.


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17 Responses to Our need for real-time information consumption is pointless

  1. Wes says:

    Interesting … Value, however, is difficult to predict in any context … Democratizing access & the tools for information creation (whether “structured”, say, code, or “unstructured”, say music – which is structured for purposes of nonlinear/digital “use” but rendered according to our senses) does not change the value equation … Object, subject or both the message & medium are increasingly intertwined … Even a cheap tie can be priceless 😉 … We still lack formalisms on what is piracy (in an actuarial sense) & what is privacy (perhaps the actuarial measure here is more difficult to estimate) … But, attribution & responsibility for information *is* highly desirable even if there is no real “long tail”

  2. Wes says:

    Forgot … No such thing as zero “transaction” costs @ the very least we need to pay for kilowatts & bandwidth

  3. @wes value in the context of this post is just the value you (the user) perceives. Value decreases when you have instant and unlimited access. It is like the cookie jar that contains these great cookies. You value one of those when you do not get them as often. But if you can have the same cookie every ay, it will become worthless after a while.

    Zero transaction, you are right, someone is always paying for it. But the costs for the user are dropping to zero. Pretty soon we do not even have to type a search query anymore as these aggregators try to push information to us. But if I have acess to all information, and so do you, then where is the value? Googling isn’t nearly as valuable anymore as few years ago.

  4. Jon Bishop says:

    If everyone knows that information then I agree that it loses value in many circumstances. For instance, I’m a bit of a news junkie and I love to be able to break news to my friends. Yet with news spreading so fast, there are often situations where they already know what I’m about to tell them and the value is lost (for me at least).

    In a situation such as the baby milk and Melamine castrophe in China though, does the news lose it’s value because everyone else knows it? I don’t think so, because it’s important that anyone with a baby knows.

    With your point on Stephen Hawking, I agree for the most part. Consuming all the information available is not going to give anyone even close to the understanding of black holes that Stephen Hawking has, but I don’t think it means that there aren’t people who can gain a deeper understanding of black holes by reading all the information available.

  5. @John, the milk example is a good one. Definitely has value. In general I don’t think information will become pointless, but the value we gain from having instant access to all info is becoming less interesting. There used to be a few geeks that knew about Google, now we all know about it. And in a few years it will simply be replaced by something else, as it loses value over time.

  6. robdiana says:

    I relate what we are seeing with the growth of datamarts and datawarehouses in the 90s. We had a bunch of departmental databases with a bunch of information. However, by itself the information was not as useful. Once we moved the data into datawarehouses, people gained knowledge from the information with better reporting, better analytics and better data mining. Aggregation must come first, but then once aggregated we will need to find ways to mine the data.

  7. The Hawkings example is a good one but for a different reason. I would not expect to have knowledge from reading a wikipedia entry, but I would like to be able to know someone is looking into black holes and where the level of knowledge generally is at on the topic.

  8. Pingback: Quality Information & Knowing Just Enough | SheGeeks

  9. @robdiana I understand what you are saying, and don’t get me wrong. I do think that having access to something you are looking for has value.
    But overall, I feel it is overrated. If I look at the things that have (almost life-changing) impact on us, it is rarely this type of information.

    @Colin, true enough. But then there is the problem (now at least) that we can’t be sure of authority anymore. Who is the expert and who is not. Just think about it, you just read a post from a Dutch dude hat was just thinking out loud. 😉

  10. Josh says:

    I think there is an interesting difference here between what is data, what is information, and what is understanding.

    Data is the statistical existences that describe various aspects of events which happen in our world. Right now we’re in the part of the cycle where we’re hungry for data. Data about how many people visit our blog, about how many people bought and sold stock on Wall Street, or about the potential throughput of the USB 3.0 standard. As more and more of this data becomes available; I believe you are correct in that the value of this data alone becomes less important.

    Right now, people clamor for data on many aspects of what’s important in their lives, and they take this data and apply it to contexts to create information. Information is really valuable, data is not. But as the data itself becomes more of a commodity, the analyzation which creates the useful information will be more of a chore. And when this happens, the value in services will not be from merely the data, but in applying the data to various contexts which have meaning to us. Various information structures will arise to help us manage all this data and turn it into real information–but it will happen a bit at a time. Eventually, these information structures will become so refined and useful that people will begin to clamor for more and more of them; like we’re clamoring now for more data. And then the cycle repeats. Ironically, this fervent clamoring ignores the fact that these information structures needed time to mature before they reached a point of value that we would naturally wonder why they’re not more prevalent.

    Context application is also the key to creating understanding. As you mention regarding the writings of Stephen Hawking; reading those materials would not make you as smart as Hawking about black holes.

    Stephen Hawking has contextual references which underscore his knowledge (information) and give him comprehension, or the ability to intelligently expound upon this knowledge. It is because we did not acquire the information in the same way as he–through years of study and research and experimentation–that we cannot achieve his level of understanding merely by reading his work. If we were to experience the journey that led to his comprehension (though it might take more time and effort), we would be able to understand what he does, and in fact go beyond his knowledge.

  11. @josh Excellent comment! I guess it all comes down to the following, there are no real shortcuts in life to gain knowledge, not even using Google 😉

  12. Wes says:

    actually @josh makes great points but respectfully value is both subjective (as observers can make different determinations) & objective (as when consideration is used to contract between parties that have a meeting of the mind – contract with monetary consideration being an obvious example) …

    The subtle issue is that we cannot know in advance the value a bit before it has been “valued” … One way may be sentimental (bits of a recording of my mother’s voice) or positional (bits that may reflect the code to a really large check or something that has been positioned – eg there is never zero transaction costs) …

    Access to data is one thing … That the data may be structured for sentimental &/or positional purposes does not mean it can be profitably transacted … Accessibility & the fact bandwidth like communications in general reflects base consideration for value creation in excess of transactional costs. Focus should be on “willingness to pay” as information (not data alone) wants to be free (eg freely accessible)

    Alas, the invisible hand matters & perfect
    competition means no profit (no rents in excess of the cost or collection) … And the value of my message & your response could not be known prior to you making your points “freely” accessible …

    My point … We all compete against free & that means we need to discover value in ways that the ‘Net makes very granular & very measurable. Unlike cookies (my point attribution holds but I’ll add that plausible deniability over who ate &/or made the cookies may be valuable to different people for different reasons) bandwidth is not zero sum … Just like sentimental ties that cannot be replaced are “priceless”

    If we knew value we could simply take orders …

    Great post!

  13. Pingback: Real Time Information is Just Data, Knowledge Comes Later | Regular Geek

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  16. Ken says:

    Nice. Very deep. Really made me think.

  17. Pingback: Originality doesn’t equal popularity — Shooting at Bubbles

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