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.