Information is not knowledge

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If the UK General Election showed anything, it was the mistake of relying on social media to gauge the national mood. Social media failed to accurately reflect what everyone felt. It did show how a proportion of the nation felt. Yet for a while, I was convinced everyone was going to vote Miliband.

It made me realise I’ve been trusting social media too much. And, actually, one of the reasons I haven’t written as much lately (other than the fact I have an eight-month old), is that the general level of noise in my information diet is turned up way too high.

I have my best ideas when I am in the pub. On my first pint. By myself. And my phone is off …

I don’t think we have yet realised the enormous impact our devices have had on our lives. Again — I love them. But I hate the distraction factor. There is a feast of information. Some of it is good for you. Some of it isn’t. So it’s time to turn down the noise a bit. To opt not to listen to some things. And to lose the sense of obligation to “feel connected”. There is simply too much to connect to. One must pick one’s connections with care.

Big data has clearly demonstrated its worth in fields like medicine and law, where human experts can’t possibly process masses of new research as effectively as advanced, cognitive computers can. But it can also be too big and overwhelming. A recent report from the analyst firm Forrester found that some businesses complain they are “drowning in data and starving for insight.”

“Companies are constantly gathering data — but no one has perfected the insights-driven action that should be the output of data collection,” Forrester reported. “Big data is, in many instances, exacerbating the situation for companies that are failing to execute on the data they already have on hand.”

And then there’s the possibility that smarter machines — while they boost efficiency and productivity — also raise the risk of an increasingly dehumanized society. In his latest book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Nicholas Carr (who wrote the still-provocative essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”), warns that it’s naive to assume that computer-enabled and automated convenience is always good.

“The trouble with automation,” Carr writes in The Glass Cage, “is that it often gives us what we don’t need at the cost of what we do.”

Boiled down to their essence, all of the preceding concerns point to the same conclusion: information does not equal knowledge. Automated technologies need to be guided by wisdom — a very unpopular word right now — that still belongs largely to humans, not machines.

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