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The Power of Information

Since the birth of my daughter 8 years ago, I have struggled with a lower back condition. Basically I am too flexible, and there are a couple of joints in my lower back that are very sad because they aren’t properly supported anymore.  Softer ligaments from pregnancy, and that emergency c-section meant I lost the core muscles that had been built up back when I could do 100 sit-ups in 2 minutes.

The Power of Information

But this little detail is not meant to get you to feel sorry for me. Instead I’d like us to take a moment to really think about what we’ve accomplished these last 40 years.

Man’s Greatest Achievement

Prior to the Internet, one could argue that man’s greatest achievement, at least that with the biggest impact to the most people, was our invention of the printing press.  Sure, we’d had writing for a couple of millennia, and books even.  But the books were of the painstakingly created variety, like those beautiful illuminated manuscripts one can admire in places like Ireland’s Trinity College.  A lot of people were very sad when a library at Alexandria in Egypt burned down, as it contained at least 50% of the world’s recorded history.  Maybe more.

What the printing press meant was that one person could produce a piece of information, and the press allowed it to be copied and copied and copied some more.  Those copies were distributed widely, and became the basis of many a religious or cultural revolution.  Martin Luther’s protestant reformation was enabled by his use of printed materials to carry his message.  Yes, there were also the scourges of society, like the Victorian penny novels that would certainly be the downfall of morality and society, but for the most part information was allowed to be free.

Except when it wasn’t.

Arrested for Distributing Information

Back in the 1920s, a woman named Margaret Sanger was repeatedly arrested for distributing information related to birth control.  Yes, this happened in America.  She was accused of some sort of indecency, and for using the U.S. postal service for her nefarious purposes.  Eventually she prevailed, married a very rich man, and hired a bevy of super smart scientists to create a magic pill for her, then launched a viral campaign to educate people about all of their options and risk factors.  Her organization is called Planned Parenthood, and it continues to service thousands upon thousands of people who lack the most basic information about the things that can affect their lives the most.

Transparency of Information

Information is and always has been a huge component of our societies. Some people like to control it in order to dominate others.  Or to marginalize or stamp out ideas that they don’t like. Just this week, news of a Syrian family who lost their 13 year old to torture and murder by government thugs.  The father risked his life to produce a video of the child’s broken body – he is now missing.  There were attempts to censor the video by removing it from YouTube, but activists successfully lobbied to have it unblocked.  Horrific, but each and every instance of such transparency, of calling out the evil in the world, makes a difference.

Does Brain Beat Brawn?

People with information, like where to forage for the best food, or how to make an amazing stone ax, have always thrived a bit better. Brains beat brawn, even in the most intense survival conditions.  Information is how we understand the night sky and launch ships that can travel the world and get back again. It’s the Euclidean geometry that lets you build very very big buildings. And the thing that might contribute to whether you live or die (tobacco smoking  is bad for you!).  Information is currency and resource and tool for good or bad purposes, depending on your proclivities.  And information has the very interesting quality of moving around on its own, despite what the powers-that-be might want.  ‘Can’t stop the signal’ is what Mr. Universe, the consummate information man, gives as his last words in the movie ‘Serenity’.  It’s a box, like Pandora’s, that can never be closed again once open.  That’s why Adam and Eve were ostensibly thrown from the garden of Eden, remember… they ate from the tree of knowledge.

You Don’t Know What you Don’t Know

I’m pretty good with information.  I’ve been on the Internet since 1990 or so, back when I logged into a server at UC Berkeley and ran programs like Pine, Tin and Gopher.  I know my Boolean operators and the strengths and weaknesses of various search engines, so I can find stuff readily.

But what about when you don’t know what you don’t know?

Back to the problem with my back.  I can’t even tell you how many doctors, chiropractors, massage therapists, naturopaths, osteopaths and acupuncturists I have seen over the years.  Even tried Chinese medicine, except it didn’t agree with my decidedly Caucasian constitution.  Worrying that I will have to break down and try extreme measures like letting them inject cortisone steroids into the very sad joints.  Have about a dozen business cards of various pain clinics, know every physical therapy facility in my city… have done the work to solve the problem.  Yet my back kills me every day, and I am missing out on life because of it.

The Power of Facebook

Well, I was cruising Facebook this morning, and happened across the page of a naturopath named Dr. Ben Lynch.  I noticed he was dispensing advice on his page, and because it was easy, I sent him a quick note… Within a couple of hours a response, and a solution I had never heard of. Blithely, like telling someone with scurvy that they should take some vitamin C. Further research proves it credible, and I now have some hope of solving a problem that has a huge negative impact on my life.  And Dr. Ben?  He’s got a sustainable business model based on classical marketing principles:  identify a problem and solve it.  With a product or service or information.  Want to know how to succeed in the digital universe?  Look at what he’s doing:  the 15 minute free phone consultations, the podcasts, the oodles of advice and information he dispenses generously.  That’s how social media works.

What is Quora?

I also spend a lot of time on Quora, a site that’s a bit hard to describe, but it’s like when the nerdy kids sit around saying ‘why do you think we exist?’ or ‘what’s the best shooting scene in a movie?’  Except the questions go beyond the mundane.  Ashton Kutcher frequents the site, and Quorites ask him questions, which he answers.  Venture capital neophytes ask for frankly, insider information, on how to score funding, and how to build decent products.  It’s thousands of conversations, a mish-mash of chaos and spontaneity. And really good information.  Some might call it a waste of time.  I think of it as sharing, in the same way my blogging is sharing.  Except in this case the community has told me what they would like to know, and sometimes that’s surprising.

The Power of Questions on Quora

It’s funny that people ask questions like ‘how do I get a geeky girl to like me?’ or ‘how did people waste time before there was the Internet?’ – it’s like a window into otherwise unexplored regions of our collective consciousness.  I find I know so much more than I know, and I find that I am curious about many, many things – things that I had sort of given up ever knowing.  And I get a small bit of delight when someone acknowledges my contribution through the tiny but pervasive upvoting mechanism.

Information is Changing Our World

I think it’s incredible how freely flowing information is changing our world.  How much people share, how much people contribute.  It’s like we’re all in on this big project called ‘growing the Internet’ and we are committed soldiers each doing our little part.  The only problem with this fantastic information revolution is that it has done away with arguing about random facts, a fun past-time in those days before the Internet.  Now somebody always has a phone, a magic device that fits in the palm of a hand and allows access to much of the information in our world.  For free.  Relatively few controls thanks to the efforts of the ever vigilant Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other pioneers who remember that time before the Internet, and don’t take it for granted.  Truly incredible.

I Can’t Remember Telephone Numbers

Strange that I can no longer remember a phone number or navigate a phonebook, but we can’t have it all.  One of the upsides is that this ubiquitous access to information means I don’t have to stuff my head with it all.  And that, quite simply, is why kids think school is irrelevant.  They know that they will forget those facts, and know that should they need them, they can find a person or device that will connect them to the answer.

What We Need to Learn

What we need to do is learn about this powerful stuff called information, and how to consume it and create it, and connect people to it, and to use it to forge a better world.  Because it is the stuff of magical change, and that’s what we’re waiting for.

Guest Author: Lisa Galarneau Ph.D. is a User Experience Researcher (Virtualization) Volt at Microsoft. You can find her on lgalarneau.webs.com and LinkedIn

Image by Lemsipmatt

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