The Editor and I don’t argue, we discuss.
We’re arguing… discussing over a glass of red wine my concern over our collective attention spans. Not just she and I, but everyone. The whole damned planet.
I say, “Information just keeps getting smaller. We’re sharing our bright ideas in 140 characters now and no one is taking the time to construct a strategic thought. All these micro-ideas are free and everyone is taking them for granted. We’re just tactically stumbling through a day full of intellectual sound bites stuffed with shortened URLs. There’s no deep now. Just shallow passing seconds.”
“No one is learning. There’s no work involved in knowing a thing, so we’re becoming mentally flabby. I want people to read more.”
To which the Editor retorts: “I don’t think you know what information is.”
Information has a Hierarchy
So I looked it up. According to Ray R. Larson at Berkeley, information has a hierarchy that looks like this:
- Data – The raw material of information
- Information — Data organized and presented by someone
- Knowledge — Information read, heard or seen and understood
- Wisdom — Distilled and integrated knowledge and understanding.
If you ignore the fact that the word information is used to define a hierarchy about information, this hierarchy makes sense, but it dances around a key point.
Another version of this hierarchy describes the same categories as above but focuses more on what happens to information once we get a hold of it. Not just consumption, but synthesis.
- Data — Raw material. Facts. Got it.
- Information – Organized data. See what happens here? Someone showed up and organized the data into something else. Why’d they do this? How’d they know it was the right thing to do? Let’s keep moving.
- Knowledge — Information seen, heard or read and understood. To me this is when information is transformed by the understanding of why. Our data is organized into information and that is passed onto someone else who can now recognize the value in the information and thinks, “Oh, wow. Now I understand how a trash compactor works. Slick.”
- Wisdom — Distilled, integrated knowledge and understanding. The idea here is that higher order constructions of information are based beyond our ability to consume, combine, evaluate, and interpret information. The information becomes a catalyst for creation. Think of it like this: maybe a lot of people understand trash compactors, but you know so much about trash compactors that you could build one yourself and perhaps advance the art of trash compacting in the process.
Still with me? This is going to take more than 140 characters and there’s a point. Just wait a tick.
Take a look at this list:
- New York is a city.
- It takes me about five hours to fly to New York.
- I’ve been to New York three times this year
- I never believe I’m in New York until I’m in a cab or smoking a cigarette.
Is this data, information, or knowledge? Or just four boring tweets? That would depend on whether or not you’re interested in my experiences in New York. But what I provide in this list is the opportunity for increasing amounts of understanding, and understanding is the progression through, and synthesis of, increasingly complex pieces of information. Right?
There’s another thread that ties this information together, and you may not initially see it, but if you’ve started mentally asking questions – Why does Rands go to New York? What does he do there? Did I know that he smoked? – you have started to find it.
I’ve begun to tell you a story.
A Shattered Narrative
The reason no one watches or cares about the evening news anymore is because there are a great many other ways to find your news. A weblog here, a Twitter status update there. In the deluge of information variety we’ve realized that the evening news is just one set of facts and just one carefully constructed story, and increasingly one with its own specific agenda. Who wants to be spoon-fed 30 minutes of ad-infested evening news when I can figure out what my world thinks is important by glancing at The Daily Show, Twitter, and NetNewsWire?
The traditional narrative has been shattered into bits of well-indexed information. Google wasn’t the first indexing tool, but it’s certainly the best. Still, Google is powerfully dumb. Yes, I can find whatever piece of information I’m looking for, but what’s more interesting are all the related pieces of information. How do you query for knowledge via Google? How about wisdom?
If you’re buying my definitions of the informational hierarchy, there’s no replacing the process of understanding if you want to delve into more interesting forms of information. There’s no replacing a human being combing through seemingly disparate pieces of information to evaluate, interpret, and combine it into something unexpected; into a new work. Into a story.
Those frustrated with Twitter are frustrated because they have a belief that a story needs a beginning, middle, and end. And that it should have all of those parts before it’s presented to them. What the hell am I supposed to learn from a tweet? The point of Twitter isn’t knowledge or understanding, it’s merely connective information tissue. It’s small bits of information carefully selected by those you’ve chosen to follow and its value isn’t in what they send, it’s how it fits into the story in your head. There are great stories to be found on Twitter, but you have to do the work.
This is what is going on all day. It will start with a random tweet about conferences and you’ll think, “I don’t understand why everyone goes to conferences”. You won’t act on this thought; you’ll leave it buried in your head until you see that link on del.icio.us where someone important rails on the lack of women presenters at conferences. And in that moment, you’ll remember that drunken thought you had at that conference last March when you discovered the basic truth about conferences: it’s not what you learn, it’s who you find.
From a disparate set of information, you continually find your own arc, your own story, and my question is: What are you going to do with it? You’re an information nerd, you’re adept at consuming massive amounts of micro-information, and those who watch you do this are saying you’ve got a short attention span, and you might.
But I think all this micro-information has macro-story potential.
Rands’ Story Hierarchy
As we’ve established, there’s information. Like everywhere. You, as a consumer of information, fall into one of three progressively complex buckets regarding this data:
- You can understand the information — What does it mean? Why is it important? How does it relate to other things I care about?
- You can explain the information to someone else — Hey Bob, this is what this means. I can explain it to you and impart my understanding.
- You can create more information, building something new and telling a story – Hey Jim, actually, we discovered a better way to do X. Bob and I were working on Y one time and realized that…
But Rands, I’m not a writer.
This is a poor excuse and the death of many a worthy story. The construction of a story has very little to do with writing. It has to do with the semi-magical process of you taking disparate pieces of information, combining them into something new, which includes your experience and understanding, and then giving them to someone else. Look around the walls of wherever you’re reading this and pick two random objects. Got ‘em? Ok, now tell me how they relate. No, you can’t say, “They’re both in the coffee shop”. What’s the first novel thing that crosses your mind about the intersection of these two items?
But you don’t have a story, yet. Just like information isn’t knowledge until it’s understood, your tale isn’t a story until you give it someone else — until they have a chance to see what they think about your inspiration.
But Rands, my thought is really, really stupid.
I understand what you’re saying but I don’t think that’s what you mean. I think what you’re saying is, “I don’t think that anyone will find anything of value in my thought,” and you’re wrong. You’ve got two things going for you. You’ve got the inexplicable moment of inspiration that created your idea, and it’s the closest thing to magic you’ll experience in your life. Second, you’ve got the entire planet listening and there’s just no telling what any of those folks are looking for.
The value of the idea is one part that it is yours and one part that you gave it to someone else. It’s you and something new.
Information Is Getting Smaller and Faster
Look at the historic progression of popular personal written information containers over the past 10+ years:
Home pages > Blogs > Lists of Links > Tumblr > Twitter
I see two symbiotic trends. First, I see a reduction in the average size of a piece of information. I see information that feeds our short attention spans. Second, and more important, I see our tools increasingly removing barriers from producing information. Remember when you needed a nerd friend to set up a weblog? Did you have any issue figuring out how to publish a thought with Twitter? I hope not.
Yes, these frictionless tools make it so anyone can say anything about any topic, but these tools are built with you in mind and I do mean you. Imagine if Twitter forced you to follow certain people. What if Facebook randomly added folks to your friends list? You know what you’d have? The evening news. Random stories from folks you don’t know and probably don’t trust.
We’re in a share everything world and you get to choose your role. You can be overwhelmed and sit in the coffee shop with your friends and say, “Twitter: what’s the point?” Or, you can jump in with both feet, grab those three random ideas and tie them into a story that no one has ever seen.
An Essential Skill
I wrote, edited, and published an entire book without physically interacting with a single person at my publisher. The t-shirt I produced last year and the one I’m doing this year were entirely designed, developed, and shipped by interacting with two different organizations that I never met. Paradoxically, it’s never been easier to share or meaningfully interact with more people with less physical, in-person effort.
Your ability to compose and convey information as well as express yourself through your fingertips is a skill that is only going to increase — and increase in value — as people become more comfortable with their place in communities that span the planet, and as the tools to connect them become more commonplace.
In this digitally distant world full of information that appears to only be moving faster and faster, you get to choose: how much will I consume and how much will I create?