Only in the books, computing and travel areas have companies proved
themselves capable of moving to occupy a stream of Web content to
drive revenue. Amazon uses extensive customer input to provide a
deep experience of books. In fact, today I noticed a book that had
a reader comment from Amazon.com masquerading on the back cover
as a critical comment. Preview Travel, Expedia and Travelocity use
the Web to personalize travel experience, drawing not only on their
own sites, but information from across the Internet. And, of course,
there are five giants and a lot of wannabes in computer publishing
vying for dominance in the market for reporting about the Internet.
Where are such streams, ready for other gold-rushers to plumb for
new wealth? Here's a question that must be answered on many different
dimensions, but the first step is to identify the qualities that
make information valuable.
We're back to Claude Shannon, who postulated that the value of
a message was measured by the degree it reduces uncertainty.
Let's imagine a Cartesian coordinate system that plots the value
of information, accuracy on the vertical axis and timeliness on
the horizontal. Information that is timely and accurate would be
in the upper right-hand sector of the chart. Information that falls
in the upper left of the chart, the untimely but accurate, would
be, at least, marginally more valuable than that in the lower left
quarter, which is timely and inaccurate in nature, and the upper
right quarter that is accurate but untimely.
Timeliness is important, because even information that was accurate
when posted on the Net could have been obsoleted by new findings.
Ultimately, accuracy is everything, unless you are looking for information
that reinforces your beliefs regardless of their truth.
Now, value is a subjective thing. Someone you know may prefer information
that confirms beliefs that make them comfortable, allowing accuracy
and truth to fall by the wayside. One of the most troubling aspects
of the Web today is its capacity to convey and lend validation to
falsehoods. Anyone who has used the Net to do research knows the
perils of taking data at face value, without extensive sourcing
of facts, usually off-line.
What Yahoo!, Excite, Lycos, and the other search engines provide
is not any form of accuracy, only direct routes to data. So, their
services cover the entire range of information plotted on the coordinate
chart. The user is left to sort out truth from fiction. Book sites,
travel sites and sports sites, among others, must add to the simple
act of finding data by ensuring it is accurate. If you show up in
Cannes and can't find the charming bistro promised on the Web, you're
going to be upset. From the travel site's perspective, it must ensure
data integrity before the fact, because someone who knows better
will point out the error, causing damage to the site's reputation.
We're a long way from the traditional definition of value, since
the transfer of data is not equivalent to the transfer of a commodity
from one person to another; the quality of data must be ensured.
Information is a product not only of the original labor that created
it, it is the result of a vetting process in which the value of
work by additional contributors accretes to the original datum.
Shannon's postulate treats information only at the end point of
its developmental process, when it is received by the consumer.
Information value is a wave that builds as it travels across the
coordinate map from the center point, up and to the right, toward
a theoretical perfect-accuracy and perfect-timeliness. Accuracy
develops through a process not unlike the scientific method, through
which theories are tested, challenged and, if they survive, become
Search engines have succeeded by merely lending assistance with
finding information on a particular topic (if you consider two million
hits on "macroeconomics" helpful, that is). What's the
right strategy moving forward, because it is apparent to me that
the electronic gold rush will give way to a time when you cannot
simply put your hand in the stream and pull out money.
Targeting of services is certainly one strategy that will work.
Some sites will be very good at filtering high-value information
from the data silt on the Web. There is a lot of room for better
search engines, which accounts for the ongoing success of commercial
data retrieval companies. If, as I say, a wide range of new information
and subject matter has been economically-activated by the advent
of the Web, there are myriad new markets to be served by filtering
experts -- everything from a Siskel & Ebert of porn sites (there
is one) to the Beckett Baseball Card Guide to baseball card collectors
on the Internet.
But, beyond targeting subject matter, there is the opportunity
to target audiences and, by creating exclusivities through limited
access to high-value information filtering services. For example,
I believe it is perfectly reasonable to imagine a service that provides
executives access to vital and actionable business intelligence
and to one another within a secure and confidential setting. At
this level of service, which could sell for many thousands of dollars
a year, the barriers to entry are in the cost of expertise, the
cost of service and the value of confidentiality in a wide-open
In this scenario, the Web company is aiming not just for the upper
right quarter of the Cartesian coordinate system, it is very selective
about which of the population of potential information sources it
actually selects for distribution to its customers. In other words,
it has headed upstream toward the source of the gold that others
are picking up in down in the lowlands.
At this point, it would be fitting for me to introduce a formula
for analyzing informational value at any point in the data flow,
one that accounts not only for the position of data relative to
accuracy and timeliness, but also for the perceived value of information
among segments of the population. Alas, I am still submerged in
the calculus and Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Communications.
I hope to provide a series of formulae in the future.
E.O. Wilson Meets John Dewey
Having recommended E.O. Wilson's new book, Consilience, it is appropriate
to share a recent posting of mine to the John Dewey listserv. Dewey
is an important contributor to the prevailing American philosophy
of democracy. The potential conflict between Deweyan and Wilsonian
thought was mentioned on the list, by someone who apparently hadn't
read Wilson's book. So, here is a brief, but I think instructive,
comment on the relationship between these two thinkers.
Several relevant quotes from Consilience:
"The full understanding of utility will come from biology
and psychology by reduction to the elements of human behavior followed
by bottom-up synthesis, not from the social sciences by top-down
inference and guesswork based on intuitive knowledge. It is in biology
and psychology that economists and other social scientists will
find the premises needed to fashion more predictive models."
"The epigenetic rules of human nature bias innovation, learning,
and choice. They are gravitational centers that pull the development
of mind in certain directions and away from others. Arriving at
the centers, artists, composers and writers over the centuries have
built archetypes, the themes most predictably expressed in original
works of art."
Wilson and Dewey, who advocated the idea that habit rather than
instinct is the driving force in human behavior, I think would find
themselves in agreement if they were to meet today. Keep in mind
that Dewey never heard of DNA. I believe that Dewey, who said that
habit is "human activity which is influenced by prior activity
and [is] in that sense acquired," would have recognized the
incontrovertible influence of epigenetic rules. Wilson balances
his genetic view with a certainty that human nature is the result
of a dynamic interrelationship of genetic and environmental factors.
Wilson, I think, would agree with Dewey when he said "Impulse
is a source, an indispensable source, of liberation; but only as
it is employed in giving habits pertinence and freshness does it
Wilson: "The human condition is the most important frontier
of the natural sciences. Conversely, the material world exposed
by the natural sciences is the most important frontier of the social
sciences and humanities. The consilience argument can be distilled
as follows: The two frontiers are the same."
Contrast Wilson above with Dewey: "...[S]ocial philosophy
cannot stop with the mere recording and description; it must direct
with thoughtful understanding the conclusions and recommendations
which grow out of the records and descriptions of science.... The
relationship between the social sciences and social philosophy is
thus one interpenetration."
Wilson, again: "The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers,
people able to put together the right information at the right time,
think critically about it, and make important choices wisely."
"I believe that in the process of locating new avenues of
creative thought, we will also arrive at an existential conservatism."
Where Dewey and Wilson would diverge is underscored by these last
two quotes from Consilience. Wilson, in print and person, displays
a pronounced discomfort with the political. It's too messy and doesn't
always produce the optimum decision, at least not the first time
out. Where consilience and real life must come to terms is at the
human juncture of choices that have abroad impact on the lives of
people; I'm comfortable with the messiness and satisfied to have
the process be sloppier than science. Wilson clearly isn't. Dewey
rather enjoyed the sloppiness of politics, too.