The politics of data

I wrote a review of James Gleick’s new book for the Lancet. Here’s the link. Or the full text below the fold…

The Lancet, Volume 378, Issue 9791, Page 559, 13 August 2011

The politics of data

The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood
James Gleick
Fourth Estate, 2011
£25·00. Pp 544. ISBN-0007225741
We can’t touch it, but it is the innovation that defines our society in the way that bronze, iron, agriculture, and steam engines have defined past generations. Our age is an information age. But it is an age younger than many of us, and arguably its most powerful corporation (Google) is younger than many of our children. James Gleick, the pre-eminent science writer of the information age, has produced a dense and magnificent story of humanity’s rapidly changing relationship with information. But, perhaps inevitably for a book about everything, it provides more questions than answers.
Gleick starts his story in 1948, the year that information was invented. Or rather the year that information took on a life of its own. The rest is context. In The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, Gleick retells history as an attempt to acquire, exchange, and sort out growing quantities of information. Mankind, according to Marshall McLuhan, has progressed from hunter-gather to information gatherer. The creation of language, logic, alphabets, printing presses, the internet, and Wikipedia have allowed people to transcend their immediate experiences, systematically study phenomena, and share their knowledge with others. But the vast bulk of this history has been messy, slow, and analogue.
In 1948, two things were invented that would, when combined, enable Google’s dream to “organise the world’s information”. Bits (the atoms of information) and transistors (building blocks for silicon chips) would enable all sorts of information to be digitally represented. The latter was the creation of William Shockley at Bell Labs, winning him a Nobel Prize. The former was the brainchild of Claude Shannon, the book’s central character.
Gleick describes two interwoven scientific projects. First, the attempt to understand the nature of information, leading to the creation of computer science. And second, the attempt to standardise things so that they become intelligible to science and can be turned into information. Gleick reprints a wonderful sketch by Shannon: a vertical logarithmic scale, along which he estimates the digital information contained in a single typed page, a phonograph record, a 1-hour Technicolor movie, the whole of the Library of Congress and, most surprisingly, “the genetic constitution of man”. This was in 1949, years before the structure of DNA had been discovered. Shannon’s numbers were some way off, but his effort predicted the “informational turn” taken across the sciences and the familiarity we now have with digital information. We no longer find it surprising that our movies, our photos, our music collections, our diaries, and even our genetic code can all now be stored on our laptops.
The stories Gleick tells are rich in detail and character. He reveals the ways in which science, for its increasing dependence on data, will always be human. He resists the temptation, familiar to readers of Malcolm Gladwell, to turn every story into a parable. But his equanimity means that he is more comfortable describing the proliferation of information and less willing to say what this might mean.
New ways to process and propagate information have always forced society to confront profound questions. Each innovation is accompanied by predictions that the fabric of our personalities, societies, and industries would be torn apart. Gleick quotes Plato, who argued that the invention of writing would “produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it”. In the past, we have seen in most cases how the democratising benefits of innovation have drowned out such moral panics.
But society is now faced with the challenge of dealing with exponential increases in profoundly disruptive information. Data—Latin for “things given”—is seen as neutral and objective, but it determines more and more aspects of our lives. Systems of computerised arbitrage that no single person can ever hope to understand have seen data and algorithms take on a life of their own in financial markets. Personal genomics companies can now sell us our own genetic data, describing future risks of disease that in many cases are impossible to understand or act upon. Insurance companies may soon use such things to calculate our premiums. Online social networks are rewriting norms of privacy and preserving our embarrassments for posterity before we have a chance to think about the implications.
Gleick has a rosy view of the human journey from information poverty to the current wealth of information. He sees the major challenge as one of information overload—finding a useful signal from the noise. But the flood of information creates a whole new set of political questions. What is good information and what is dangerous? Is all information equal or does expertise still matter? Who should have access? Information may be power, but we should not forget that it is not knowledge, and it is not wisdom.


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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One Response to The politics of data

  1. Pingback: What does success look like in big science? | Responsible Innovation

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