I can't speak to the political situation in England, just as I am equally at a loss for such knowledge of Egypt. I can see such events and protests as part of a larger picture, but all the small and important details slip me by. This is a truism for the vast majority of those who are not English, or Egyptian, and it highlights one of the most odd and perverse features of the internet, overload. This concept has been beaten to death and all without any lasting satisfaction of justice. Now we can finally come to terms
This question has led to all sorts of fears and worries about society and the outcome that this hyper-connective technology may have on our brains and our kids brains, Frontline just ran a special. Both Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Ruskoff did a great job surveying this problem but unfortunate for us they kicked the conclusions down the viewers, they clearly were afraid to draw any inference no matter how small. It is as if these two were overloaded with information whilst discussing information overload. This is all the more unfortunate given the mighty weight we attach to information in modern times.
Frankly, we need to clear this technological minefield. Cory Doctorow in his most recent Guardian piece in a slightly ironic way attacks the English Government and its new push to make its governmental data and information transparent. Now I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by his ferocity. He titles his piece, Government data like crime maps is not enough – there needs to be action at the heart of this title is the forceful if implicit admission that information of its own accord is often of little or no value. He cites Sukey as a counterpoint to the slow and sluggish government.
For those of you who don't know Sukey is designed to provide realtime information to protesters and allow the to avoid being "kettled" or cordoned off and then slowly let out few at a time.
Now most people nowdays should share Cory's view that information by itself is useless. And this is where I point out a gapping hole in Cory's reasoning. First he seems to have developed the unreasonable assumption that because a few are in a position to process data that everyone should be able to do the same.
I first point to the difference in the quantity of information: Sukey is provided input in near real-time by a large number of people, the crime statistics on the other hand are gathered off of patrol data and are collected after the fact. In other words Sukey is the many watching the few and the Police statistics are the few watching the many. Still, I must ask what good is real time data of a burglary when Mr. Doctorow insists that the police should have predicted it? It just doesn't square, lest we are forced to look into solutions that might violate anyone's privacy.
This leads me to the second problem I have with this article. In regards to almost all disciplines we are all laymen. Given we all have our individual specialties but we on the whole are not educated or equipped enough to fully interpret a massive influx of realtime data. Information is now moving too quickly for even the interpreters to translate all of it at once. Just like, our kids can't focus long enough to write an essay or read a book. This critic is mostly aimed in the political vein, in the old paper based or broadcast model we had an intermediary who would translated the data or statistics into terms understandable by the laymen.
Now, as laymen we lack the full context and knowledge of the experts on whatever might be happening. Cory's argument encompasses this when he mentions Mr. Humphrys, and his anger over the uninterpretable and rather useless data. Now I agree here the data is a waste and there seems little point in having it without an interpretation. However, if we expand beyond this little example guess what? You've got the rest of the internet. Full of useless and often untranslatable data. How could anyone know enough to be an expert in all these fields all at once?
Then, it is vapid egalitarianism for someone to insist that a government or even a whole species should be able to process the sum of its politics into action. It should be understood that much of the data produced by governments is by its very nature un-interpretable to the stock and trade laymen. Sure if you are a politician, a professor or a columnist you can make good political use of such statistics but what is any data to a laymen? Its just data, cold and useless crime stats. What should the government do in response to the crime stats?
Well its debatable right? That's the heart of governance right, debate? How can a government be more responsive when what the data means has to be fought over first. Its an intractable problem that no amount of research or technology will ever solve.
Mr. Doctorow's column highlights the depths of the problem. Here is a technology pundit who, even as he rails against his government, simultaneously asks that government to solve this most perplexing technological & human relations problem of the modern age.
A government is nothing but its politics, and I would be frighteded by such a government that would have such powers of action that Mr. Doctorow proclaims. After all a government is supposed to be measured and responsive to all, and not just some. Super responsive reporting and action has the power to rend detailed understanding from anyone and everyone, and attacks the very heart of a benevolent government. If a government acted all at once for all it's citizens, then it wouldn't be a government, it would be mob.
How should a government be responsive in the information age? I really think that the internet will not change government response, yes information will become more transparent, we will be able to see more of the cogs in the machine but that doesn't mean that all that information suddenly makes us engineers of our own personally responsive government. Some may not like the idea of social order or the police's attendant function in that regards, but that doesn't mean that we should bend or break society just because our government can't act on all the information provided it.