We always think about how we use information or how we make it useful for others. I think we have it backwards. Information uses us.
Information rules. It controls our behavior. It shapes the structure of our existence. Humans and machines are the tools information uses to increase its own complexity. Information is tapping vanity, voyeurism and other primal instincts to extend and ascend (e.g., YouTube). Information cares little whether it flows through the monsters of tyranny or greed or the angels of virtue and good — so long as it can flow. Us CIOs and our fellow executives are the unwitting agents building the arteries, the capillaries and the veins information needs in order to spread. In this regard, Google is information’s solution for asexual reproduction. Information can’t be reasoned with or bargained with. We cannot stop it. We are not in control. We only have the illusion of control.
This is rather an alarmist viewpoint, but one worth considering. Change is now a permanent feature of the public and private landscape. Information technology is the primary contributor here, creating an environment where it is harder for everyone — governments, corporations and individuals — to cope with this level of dynamism. Our natural instincts as information technologist lead us to think that more information will improve decisions, that better information is good and more access to information helps. But I sometimes wonder if the widening gap between the pool of available information and the information actually used by people to make key decisions is contributing to that increased rate of change we see in the world.
Consider a world of perfect information in which everyone has access to all information simultaneously and everyone’s strategies for pursuing their goals are transparent. Such a world well, would be heaven, or something like that. But life isn’t perfect. Human beings can’t possibly absorb what is practically an infinite amount of information. A very small subset of information must make do. Organizations and people vary widely in their ability to include information into their decision making (witness the current U.S. administration’s foreign policy?).
More information will only increase the gap between the expert at using information and the dolts. The bigger the gap, the more chaos. Smarter firms kill the dolts, but become dolts and get killed by smarter firms, all at faster rates. Small but vocal and smart mobs move governments, especially when government support is fragmented in fragile coalitions. Individuals get tossed between jobs and firms and have to adjust quickly to new information, new technologies, new skills, new friends. It’s not surprising social networks went digital. Perhaps these are the only enduring kind.
So what does this mean to this CIO? It leaves me with questions that I ponder.
Am I unwittingly contributing to the creation of the next totalitarian state? Once created, these amazing information technology tools are useful for all purposes, good and bad.
Are we unwittingly killing the very thing we need the most of — team expertise — by creating internal environments that must be agile but are now unstable? Team expertise is the sum total of individual expertise and team collaboration skills and can take years to develop. Expert teams can deliver far more productivity than less skilled teams. However, to develop this expertise, which the economy will demand, we need enough stability to let teams get smart.
Are we multi-tasking skill to death? The economy needs high levels of productivity, which means expertise. However, developing high levels of expertise requires people to have continued and sizable periods of time in which they are not interrupted. That’s the way the brain works. More of the just-in-time information economy may drown us in trivia but leave us thirsting for skill.
What is the antidote for these ills?
I dunno. Maybe it’s just me. What do you think?
Vince Kellen (http://www.kellen.net) is Vice President for Information Services (CIO) at DePaul University and a member of the faculty for DePaul’s computer science graduate program.