Thursday, March 26, 2009

Whose Information?

Robert Smith had a piece ("Sept. 11 Families Want Confidential Files Released") on NPR's Morning Edition today that dovetails nicely with a number of posts that have appeared here* on the relationship between courts and the information order. Our argument has been that courts play a role in enacting an important relational component of equality in a democracy: under certain circumstances, formal equals cannot arbitrarily withhold information from one another.

The three remaining plaintiffs are arguing that materials they've obtained during the discovery phase of their trial -- materials about airline and airport security on 9/11 -- should be made public. The defendants are claiming that the material is meant for "the lawyers' eyes only."

The case reminds us of the informational role played by courts and civil litigation. As generic members of the public who happened to have been singled out by having a relative killed on 9/11 these plaintiffs are exercising their formal informational equality before the court. They get to say "tell us what you know about that day" and the usually much more powerful organizations are not allowed, in this forum, to say, "we don't have to tell you."

Now the question is whether their right to ask (and be answered) is tied to their formal status as equals before the court as a place where information "comes to light," or whether it's interpreted in strictly transactional terms -- since their lawsuit requires the information, they may see it, but the other party gets to maintain its right to say "we don't have to tell you" to the public at large.

Even apart from how the judge rules on the contest between the public interest of disclosure and the private interest of confidentiality here, in light of the frenzied demand for "confidential corporate information" from the bailed out insurer AIG in recent weeks, we might remind ourselves that the airlines received a pretty hefty bailout from the taxpayers after 9/11. Perhaps they'll want to be careful about how vigorously they argue that the public does not have the right to know.

*See these posts:
  1. "Equality, Information and the Courts Redux: The Dan Rather Report,"
  2. "Democracy and the Information Order,"
  3. "Courts and the Information Order,"
  4. "Suing for Information"
See also:
  1. Hadfield, Gillian. 2009. "Framing the Choice Between Cash and the Courthouse: Experiences With the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund." Law & Society Review, Volume 42, Issue 3 (p 645-682)
  2. Hadfield, Gillian and Dan Ryan. "Democracy and the Information Order" (unpublished draft)
  3. Weiser, Benjamin. "Value of Suing Over 9/11 Deaths Is Still Unsettled." New York Times, March 12, 2009.

Information Rot

A whole chapter in my book on the sociology of information will be about information permanence and impermanence and so this posting by David Pogue caught my eye: "Should You Worry about Data Rot?" It's text of an interview that was a part of a video piece he did for CBS a few weeks ago. The basic idea is that we store our data on media that are subject to degradation and that require for play back hardware or software that have short lifetimes. We are left with the problem of constantly "migrating" our data to new formats.

An important observation : the pace at which data recording formats become obsolete and unreadable is accelerating. The experts cited in the piece suggest we are currently at the ten year mark -- at this point, one needs to migrate to new media every ten years.

The video piece ends with the observation that there's never been, nor ever will be, a data recording technology that lasts forever. Of course, one's first thoughts go to clay tablets from ancient Persia, which seem to have held up rather well. True, but of all the clay tablets ever produced, we have, in all likelihood, but a small fraction. But then, given what's on most of them (e.g., records of grain sale transactions or inventories of food storage), it's not clear that the information order is impoverished by their absence. Of what fraction of our current information holdings could the same be said of. One wonders, but one migrates one's own data, just in case.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Foolishness as a Fount of Robustness

It has often been said that information is at the heart of the current economic crisis: markets grind to a halt as opacity erodes trust between investors.

In many of the diagnostic dissections of the crisis foolishness plays a central role, foolishness in the form of ill-advised risk-taking. In the wake of either getting burned or seeing others get burned, the players all withdraw to the sidelines, unwilling to put their money on the line.

We envision a process of rebuilding that will involve clearing out the bad assets, replenishing reserves, rewriting regulations, finding fault and assigning responsibility. In short, we imagine that it won't be over (that is, the players won't venture back out into the game) until all the t's have been crossed and all the i's have been dotted.

But maybe we'll yet be rescued by the very same foolishness that got us into the problem in the first place. It might well be that just a few glimmers of hope, a few signs that the government knows what it is doing or is willing to step up to the plate, at least a mild indication that the loonier folks won't be allowed to demagogue, a few bright spots in terms of basic indicators, and oila, the players are out there, slightly irrationally, ready to play again. If they really were careful assessors of the status quo and careful evaluators of the odds, they'd hold back and wait for all those t's and i's. But these are the same folks who thought it was fun to play with loaded guns, blind folds, and beer. It may be that the very characteristics that got us in will be what hastens our way out.

An appetite for being "only so careful" may be evolutionarily robust. It could well be that a population of more careful actors would still get into such messes every now and then (if, perhaps, a little less frequently), but they'd have less chance of climbing back out. Populations with a plentiful supply of crazies, though, might have a better chance of getting on with things.

One might think, by way of analogy, of relationships in which friends are emotionally somewhat volatile in comparison to those in which everyone is very even keeled. The former find themselves frequently at odds and at one anothers' throats, but they rapidly make up and get on with things. The latter have far fewer blowups but have a much lower chance of recovering from one when it occurs.

We'll see how the stock market does tomorrow....

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Du-Jour-ism: The Cost of Short Term Culture

Listening to the news media parrot politicians' posturing over the AIG bonuses made me see some disturbing parallels. It seems that the search for A story consistently gets in the way of the search for THE story. Way too many reporters and their editors seem more concerned with getting something on the front page today than on zeroing in on what, in the long run, really matters.

The parallels are with the economic system and politicians. We've nearly been done in by CEOs who've been more concerned with this quarter's financial results than with long term stability, growth and profitability. And it seems almost impossible for anyone in congress to think beyond their rant of the moment.

I (though I'm probably not the first) call this tendency to be enthusiastically distracted by the short term du-jour-ism. It has caused collective blindness about the value of long term investments in education, infrastructure and institutions. Where's the concern about the number of engineers we'll be producing in 2020? Why aren't we putting our best minds to work on redesigning financial institutions and regulation (and focusing our spotlights on the importance thereof)? Why does the media allow various players (on both right and left) get away with falling back on their old hobbyhorses (e.g., "It'll be socialism!!!") rather than asking hard questions (e.g., "Our education system is not up to the tasks of the 21st century -- what are we going to do about it?")? Where are the reporters saying "Well, yes, but economists have shown that X is irrelevant."?

It'll take some brave and strong voices (and intellects) to break out of the cycle of du-jour-ism. Some commentators over the last few days have made some arguments along these lines about AIG, but so far their voices have been largely drowned out by hysteria and posturing.

Why is this about information? Du-jour-ism represents a style of thinking and communicating -- one that characterizes informal chit chat, gossip, and mobs of various kinds. It is a style of information behavior that is characterized by a focus on trees rather than forests, inconsequence rather than consequence, personality rather than substance, emotion rather than fact. It is information handling that is driven by delivering what recipients want and expect, what they already think, what is easy to receive and digest rather than what they may find surprising or disturbing or that may require re-evaluating assumptions.

An information order dominated by this sort of information behavior becomes top-heavy with convenient fictions and invites an eventual clobbering by inconvenient facts.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why are Newspapers Disappearing

In recent weeks we've read of the demise of several major newspapers. Most of the analytical conversation about these events suggests that newspapers are getting throttled by new technology. The internet is changing their operating environment and the newspaper companies have not succeeded at changing their business model to succeed in the new environment. There have been shifts in the world out there and so media institutions need to adjust.

Certainly plausible.

But I wonder if this obvious explanation doesn't obscure things a bit. By keeping the focus on technology, we avoid asking hard questions about the product and practice of journalism. Could it be that the changes that the environment is "calling for" include new ways of producing information as well as new ways of delivering information produced using conventional practices?

I put this out there because I've noticed that the two most obvious "initiatives" carried out by media organizations are (1) delivering the same old stuff over new media and (2) spicing up delivery to make it more entertaining. I have not, though, noticed any fundamental changes in the production of information. Have journalists taken up any new analytical tools? Do we see a move toward journalists developing new levels of substantive expertise?

In the wake of the financial crisis there's been lots of "why didn't anyone see this coming?" hand wringing. Of course, if you look closely, you'll see that there WERE lots of pieces out there giving us a warning. But a big piece of our after-the-fact-wisdom is that things were just too complex for observers to decipher. So, is there any chance that this experience will provide an incentive for higher degrees of expertise among journalists? Or will we stick with the "find a source who will tell you what to write" approach (often enough balanced by some other expert who is willing to claim something to the contrary)?