Information Rich, Information Poor
Theo Schoeman washes his BMW at 5 am. In part he is out early to beat the heat. While Windhoek, Namibia sits at 5,600 feet, its elevation can only partially offset the effects of the tropical sun that will rise by six thirty and take afternoon temperatures into the nineties. Mostly he is up early because he faces a very full day. President of the family business, Schoeman Computers, he has an endless stream of business information he must absorb. Besides his email connections to the business centers of Europe, he also receives CD-ROMs with thousands of business and technical articles from periodicals around the world. If he can get to his desk by six, he should be able to read his latest CDs for two hours before his employees arrive and the daily routine of meetings and phone calls start.
But not all of his connections are electronic. Fluent in English, German, and Afrikaans, he travels at least once each year to trade shows in Germany and the US. He has a regular buyer in California who does direct purchasing for him, shipped out on a regular flight each Friday. They converse daily either via phone or via electronic mail. A lifelong Namibian, he has a wide circle of friends, but he supplements that with formal relationships he has cultivated over the years. When people in the technology field started talking about forming a group, he helped found the Namibian Information Technology Association (NITA). When the government civil service formed a Data Services Division, he began having regular meetings with its head, and supplied her with free training sessions for her new employees.
In many ways, Theo Schoeman could be the ideal "Information Man." When people describe the future, he is much of what they hope for. Educated, affluent, well-traveled, it would be nice to think that most of the world's people will live like Theo sometime soon. But before we get too excited about that future, there are a few additional things we should know about Theo Schoeman's day. After his twelve or fourteen hours at the office, Schoeman will come home. He may put a movie into his VCR, but it won't be a Namibian movie -- there is no such thing. He might curl up with a Namibian book, but he won't do it very often -- only about half a dozen are published each year. He could turn on the tube, but all he will see on it is American re-runs and government propaganda. He might pick up the phone and direct-dial dozens of friends in the US or Germany, but he couldn't call more than a handful of people outside the capital city in his own country. In other words, Schoeman has amazing access to some kinds of information, no access at all to others -- either the information doesn't exist, or he can't get to it . There are barriers and blindspots in his world. Even the best and the brightest face limits.
Across town is Negumbo Johannes -- every one's nightmare about the information age. Johannes wakes every morning at six. He sleeps on the floor of a friend's house in Wanaheda. The house is a concrete block rectangle about the size of a one car garage in the US. Wanaheda is on the northern outskirts of Windhoek, north because that is where Blacks were allowed to live under South African rule. His street is gravel. Water and electricity are planned, but neither has arrived yet. Johannes drinks a glass of water from the bucket on the table and goes next door to meet Filippus Erastus, a friend from his village along the Angolan border. Together they start the one hour walk that takes them to downtown Windhoek.
Johannes and Erastus are day laborers. Men in their early twenties, they attended five or six years of school in their village, and then spent the rest of their youth herding cattle for their family. At sixteen or seventeen they each had younger brothers who could take over the herd, so they started looking for something better. In the north there is nothing. Two or three times a year they went in to Oshikati, the main city of the north, to sell cattle or visit friends. The city is big, but there is little manufacturing, just small retail outlets and a few slaughter houses. There are no jobs. Under South African rule members of their tribe were forbidden to travel or move to the southern parts of Namibia, but with independence in 1990 all restrictions were dropped. Some of their friends moved to Windhoek. That's where the money was. That's where the jobs were. Johannes and Erastus followed.
They didn't find jobs. Windhoek, at 150,000 people, is far larger than Oshikati, and there is some manufacturing there, but not nearly enough to employ the thousands who stream in from the outer reaches of the country. Johannes tried. In his first weeks he walked to every business in the city. Each has a sign mounted by the employees' entrance --"no work" it says in three languages. Several times he has used the entrance anyway only to be chased away before he could even ask for a job. There is no work.
So he and his friends from the north stand on various corners in the downtown area. They arrive by seven and stand until four. On a good day a construction foreman will pull a pickup truck up to the corner. Johannes and all the other men - maybe twenty or thirty -- will run to the truck. Some will jump in the back hoping they will be selected. Usually the foreman will order them back out and query each man individually about previous jobs he has done. Johannes will stand and describe work he has done and try to meet the man's eyes as long as he can. Sometimes he is chosen; sometimes he is not. When he is not, he never knows why. He is just ordered away. If he is chosen, he jumps into the back of the truck with the other lucky men.
On the job site, he does whatever he is told. Sometimes it is concrete work, building the walls of new houses. Sometimes it is loading or unloading trucks. Often it is digging foundations or trenches for water or electricity. On rare occasions his boss will give him a small lunch. Usually he works through the day on an empty stomach. At five the foreman will pay the men. It will be some amount between fifteen and twenty five Namibian dollars (4-7 dollars US). He takes whatever he is given without complaint for any comments may mean he is never hired again. The foreman may drive the men up to Wanaheda or may let them walk.
Most days he just stands on his corner waiting for work. They get no lunch. They have no bathrooms. He stands and talks to the other men about places they may have recently worked, rumors they have heard about jobs. They debate whether to stay on the corner or move to another corner. Eventually the day passes and he starts the hour-long walk home. He will fix some sort of dinner, his one meal of the day. He will pass the evening talking to his neighbors. The next day he will be back on the corner. In the past, he and his friends spent six days a week waiting for work and played soccer on Sunday. Recently some of the men have started spending Sunday on the corner too. Johannes hasn't yet, but since he is being hired fewer and fewer days each week (three days of work is an exceptional week), he is debating standing Sundays too. It would be a desperate thing to do, ending any break from the monotony of the corner, any break from the tropical sun, any break from the embarrassment of standing so visibly unemployed in a city where many drive Mercedes.
Negumbo Johannes leads a life of brutal poverty. He has no money, he has no skills, he has very little hope. His life has become almost an obsession with finding a job. He talks about it all day and dreams about it at night. His mental health is almost as precarious as his physical health. What he doesn't know is that his situation is getting worse. The information age has arrived in Africa and new systems are being established. Those systems totally exclude him.
Consider if you will, his job search. Public information vehicles are available in Namibia that might tell him about economic trends and job opportunities. But he is excluded from virtually all of them. Newspapers cost $N1.50 -- 10% of his daily wage on days when he has a wage. So he doesn't buy them. Television is broadcast by the state, but few of his neighbors have a TV, and broadcasts are in English, a language he doesn't know. Radio has one channel broadcasting in Oshiwambo, his only source of news. Professional information excludes him since he has no profession. Namibia does have professional societies to help their members stay current, and to help their members find work. He will never be a member. Organizational information bypasses him as well. None of the workplaces that employ him take the time to inform him of their future directions, their future prospects. He will only be there a day -- why should they waste time talking to him? His personal information is virtually nonexistent. He has no connections to church or sports or social groups that might give him job tips. His school friends are as desperate as he is. He has traveled nowhere but Windhoek and his village in the north so he knows nothing of the world. The only language he speaks is his tribal language of the north, a language few speak in Windhoek or elsewhere in the world. As for the great wired future, he will never in his life see a computer, much less use one to communicate or learn.
Both Theo Schoeman and Negumbo Johannes have much to tell us about our age.. One is information rich, the other information poor. The gulf between them seems infinite. They might as well be living on separate planets. Yet even the rich man has problems. The information available to him is not nearly as unlimited as might seem the case. Faxes and modems may carry information, but they don't guarantee that information will exist to carry. Cyberspace is populated with numerous black holes -- information vacuums that are largely ignored. As for Negumbo Johannes, he just wants to know who might give him a laboring job the next day, and he can't find anyone who will even talk to him. If this is the information age, what age is he in?
There may be miracles happening all around us -- masses of optical fiber, four hundred channel TV, satellite uplinks, a world wide web of resources there at the click of a button. But Schoeman and Johannes remind us that, as is usually the case, there is much more to the story. For information rich and poor alike, there are problems. To understand those problems, and then to solve them, we must begin by looking at unexamined assumptions.
One of the most basic models of the communication process begins with a simple triangle: sender, message, receiver. Somebody has to talk, something has to be said, somebody has to listen. If we map that model onto an overview of information handling, we could say information has to be generated, it has to be transmitted, and it has to be understood.
Nothing could be simpler. Except we made assumptions about each step in the process. We assume masses of information are being generated, more information every day, more than the world has ever seen before. That’s not exactly wrong, but its not totally right, either. Too much information is unavailable, even to the information rich like Theo Schoeman. We’re missing something.
Similarly, we assume that information transmission problems are now a thing of the past. After all, we have optical fiber and satellite delivery systems. But is that all it really takes? If laying fiber means information now flows everywhere, what is Negumbo Johannes’ problem?
And what about us as information receivers? Even if untold quantities of new information were suddenly available and delivered free to our door, would we know what to do with it? Where’s the evidence to support that assumption?
The central point of this book is that we haven’t asked enough about the basics. If information is doubling every three or five or seven or ten years, where has all that information gone? Is the world really awash in information? And if it is, is that the end to all the world’s problems? We are counting articles and pointing to large numbers, but not looking closely enough at the information being generated. We are talking about bandwidth as a solution to information flow without looking carefully enough at how information really moves from one place to another -- and why it often can’t move at all. And we seem extremely arrogant about our own abilities to handle information despite endless examples of our frailties.
If we are going to take advantage of developments in information access, we have to begin by being honest about the kind of information that is available, the ability of information to move, and our own ability to process it. We will take a quick overview of those three areas in this chapter, and then spend the rest of the book examining them in detail.
How much information is there?
Over the past decade or two we have been told there is an information explosion. We are told we now live in an information age. Naisbitt summed up much of this sentiment in his massive best seller - Megatrends (1982). His first trend is this: "Although we continue to think we live in an industrial society, we have in fact changed to an economy based on the creation and distribution of information." (1) He goes on to say that "more than 60 percent of us work with information as programmers, teachers, clerks, secretaries, accountants, stock brokers, managers, insurance people, bureaucrats, lawyers, bankers, and technicians." (14). As support for his assertions, Naisbitt cites the following figures:
· Between 6,000 and 7,000 scientific articles are written each day.
· Scientific and technical information now increases 13 percent per year, which means it doubles every 5.5 years.
· The rate will soon jump to perhaps 40 percent per year because of new, more powerful information systems, and an increasing population of scientists. (24)
More recently it is Alvin Toffler who has commanded our attention with his series of books describing the changes being brought to our world by new information systems. His descriptions of the information flowing through an ordinary grocery store shows all of us the practical business implications of information systems. His Powershift (1990) is a careful case-by-case description of how the availability of information is changing power relationships between individuals, organizations, and nations. He sums up much of the impact this way:
"...we are creating new networks of knowledge...linking concepts in startling ways... building up amazing hierarchies of inference...spawning new theories, hypotheses, and images, based on novel assumptions, new languages, codes, and logics. Businesses, governments, and individuals are collecting and storing more sheer data than any previous generation in history." (85)
It isn't too surprising that given this mountain of new data, we are already hearing from counselors telling us how to handle the stress such information is bringing us. In his popular book, Information Anxiety (1989), Richard Saul Wurman gives us sixteen signs to warn us we are suffering from this new malady. Among his signs of information stress are these:
· Feeling guilty about that ever-higher stack of periodicals waiting to be read.
· Feeling depressed because you don't know what all the buttons are for on your VCR.
· Thinking the person next to you understands everything you don't.
· Reacting emotionally to information you don't really understand -- like not knowing what the Dow Jones really is, but panicking when you hear that it has dropped 500 points. (36)
All these authors seem to answer the question, how much information is there? They tell us simply there is far more than there was before, the amount is ever increasing, and it seems to already be more than many of us can handle. Are they right? Without question there is more information available to us that there has been in the past. At least there is more of certain kinds of information. There is clearly more scientific information available than there has been in the past. We can see the results in new manufacturing processes, new medical treatments, and even in the genetically altered food we eat. But what about other kinds of information? Does Dan Rather tell us twice as much each night as he did five years ago? Does your local paper have twice as much news? Does it even still exist? Does your employer tell you twice as much about your company's progress? Does the company down the block tell you anything about its activities? The World Wide Web has infinitely more information than five years ago since it didn't exist five years ago, but what kind of information is on the Web? What kind of information isn't?
If we want to start discussions of an information explosion, and define this as the information age, it would be helpful if we would begin by at least defining the term "information." Toffler defines information as "data that have been fitted into categories and classification schemes or other patterns." (18) That's not a bad beginning. It implies that information is something that has been worked on -- "fitted" into patterns or other larger structures. But it is still very vague. For instance, it doesn't tell us where we might go looking for information, or what forms we might find it in.
Michael Buckland (1991) at UC-Berkeley’s School of Library and Information Studies takes a look at the forms of information. He focuses on “information-as-thing”. This is a very practical approach for a librarian to take. In essence he asks, where is this stuff and how much room will it occupy? His answer is that information comes as
1. data - records that can be stored on a computer.
2. text and documents - papers, letters, books, that may be on paper, microfilm, or in electronic form. Spoken language in any medium
3. objects - dinosaur bones, rock collections, skeletons
4. records of events - photos, news reports, memoirs
Such a definition is both insightful and practical. It reminds us that information can come in many forms. The weakness of his definition is its neutrality. It doesn’t help us later when we try to determine why there seems to be limitless information in some areas, and no information in others.
This book tries a different approach. Our assumption is that information is not a neutral object to be discovered and counted, like atoms or zebras, but an expression shaped from the very beginning by the creators of that information. In short, information comes from somebody, and that somebody determines from the beginning how much information there will be, what form it will take, and even if it will exist at all. If you want to understand information, go to its source.
How many sources are there? In one sense there are billions -- each of us who has ever occupied our planet. For the sake of brevity, though, we will look at just five sources:
· Public Information
· Personal Information
· Organizational Information
· Professional Information
· Commercial Information
These five don't exhaust all the information sources we may encounter, but they represent major sources. By examining each, we will see how much information is really out there, what form it takes, and how good it is.
In our rush to examine all the new opportunities made available by technology, we often forget that much of the information people have still comes from very traditional sources -- television, movies, radio, newspapers, and books. It is true digital information is supplementing and even supplanting these earlier forms, but it hasn't totally replaced them and won't any time soon.
But while these traditional sources of information are still important, they aren't always accessible. For instance, CNN is nice, but to see it you not only need a television, you need an electrical outlet to plug the TV into. That may not be a problem in the US where we have 850 TVs per 1000 population. But it seems to be a problem in countries like Bangladesh (5 TVs per 1000) or Kenya (9 TVs per 1000). Books are still a critical resource for information, but some countries have virtually no publishing industry, with the entire continent of Africa producing just 2% of the world's book titles.
Besides availability, there is the question of origination. There are lots of movies circulating through the world, but they come from very few countries. Developing nations occasionally complain about this cultural dependence, and even formed the New World Information and Communications Order, but there is no sign of real change here. In the meantime, not only do some countries struggle under the weight of foreign culture, exporting countries like ours have almost no opportunity to hear other voices or see other perspectives. The information flow is all one way.
"It's not what you know, it's who you know," is cynical, but it is accurate. It might be even more accurate if rephrased, "Who you know determines what you know." The value of personal contacts may be more difficult to calculate than the number of scientific articles published or the band width of optical fiber telecommunications networks, but it can be seen in the success rate in job seekers networks and in the conscious effort being placed on creating mentorships, especially for women and minorities. All of us also have handy anecdotes about an opportunity we got or a problem we were able to solve because we know someone. It seems a truism that successful people just have a bigger Rolodex than others.
While personal information access is a central process for many people, it poses several problems. The first is the possibility of conscious abuse. Many women's network were set up specifically as a response to the perception that "old boy" networks were creating an unfair advantage for men - men talked to each other, helped each other, in ways that were closed to women.
A second problem is less visible, but may in fact be a more difficult problem to overcome. The problem is cultural. Some cultures interact while others are more aloof. College calculus, may serve as the best, if most unlikely, example here. Uri Triesmann tried to determine why oriental students at U. C. Berkeley were able to pass calculus while Black students almost always failed. Both groups had been stars in high school - getting into Berkeley isn't easy - yet Blacks just couldn't pass the course. Some might respond to those results with racial slurs or attacks on Affirmative Action. Triesmann moved into the dorms and studied how both groups spent their days. What he discovered is that Asian students began each quarter setting up study groups. These weren't just groups for grinds - they had their pizzas and social evenings, too, but most of their time together was for studying. Blacks had social groups too, but these groups were strictly social. When it cam time to study, each Black student went back to his dorm room, closed the door, and studied alone. That was their culture, and it was a cultural trait that was destroying them.
Cultures of isolation aren’t the only problems of personal information channels. Since these channels are largely invisible, they can be filled with myths, lies, hatreds. Few outsiders even know what is being said, nor do they have opportunities to correct even the most egregious errors. Yet error-prone or not, these are important channels that supply much of the world’s information.
Whether organizations are businesses, or universities, or government agencies, they seem to be conflicted over information. Internally, organizations seem more willing to share information with members and employees. Externally, organizations seem unwilling to tell the world what is going on, and seem very willing to lie.
Internal organizational communication is based around an ideal and a reality. The ideal is that organizations function best when employees know what is going on. Maybe they have been asked an opinion, maybe they have played a role in forming policy, maybe not. But at least they know what the organization is trying to do. The reality is that information flows within a context. We can put in new email systems and create a system that is theoretically capable of letting each and every worker have electronic access to the CEO. But that doesn't mean the CEO will ever read the email coming in. Nor does it mean that all workers will be thrilled with new opportunities to communicate with an organization they may have tangential relations to at best.
An area of information flow that may be even more challenging is the new flows being created between organizations. Electronic data interchange (EDI) systems connect companies and government agencies in ways never attempted before. The computer systems needed for this new interchange may be daunting, but they are nothing compared to the ethical and legal challenges on the horizon.
Then there is the question of how organizations communicate with the rest of the world. Whether the organizations are public or private, large corporations or small proprietorships, information is withheld from outsiders as a routine measure.
A major source of information is professional bodies. And there are lots of these bodies. The last decade has seen a major growth here in the US.
Scientific, Technical, and Engineering Associations 1,039 1,365
Trade, Business, and Commercial Associations 3,118 3,851
Health, Medical Associations 1,413 2,290
(US Census, 787)
With over 7,000 professional associations in existence in 1992, it would appear every occupational group or subspecialty had some organization they could turn to to push their professional interests or communicate professional information. How much information do they generate? One calculation says there have now been a million papers published in the mathematics field, half within just the last ten years.
Without question, professions are producing in volume. The problem is whether the large number masks areas that are being left empty. Professions tend to have specific biases -- who they will let in, who they will listen to, what they will say to the public, and how they will relate to each other. Each bias curbs the kind of information that professions produce and the kind of information available to members of the profession.
Information can be sold. We are long-used to credit bureau’s selling information about our purchasing and payment histories. Now those bureau’s are being joined by thousands of businesses who’s entire inventory consists of information in a database. Their competitive advance is based solely on the size and contents of that database. Universities are entering the information business in a big way, selling not just collections of other people’s information, but original research. Join any of their research consortia and you too can get the latest data months, or years, before your competition.
Is this information industry matures and grows, we begin to see that it will not only be a major force in the economy -- an employer of thousands, maybe tens of thousands -- but it will be like any other industry. It will produce products for which there is a market. The names of the fifty most credit-worth individuals in your zip code may be available from many sources. The phone numbers of the federal programs an immigrant may turn to for temporary help, may be less easily accessed. Universities may have new sources of funds for building material science research centers. They may have less money available to pay visiting poets. The commercialization of information has commercial consequences. Profitable information is available from many sources; nonprofit information struggles to survive on handouts.
Each of these five information sources shapes information, with some of the “shapes” looking more and more like distortions.
How Accessible is Information?
If the amount of information available is somewhat less than our hopes, at least we can easily get to information now, right? We have all these satellites and optical fiber networks now. Information access isn't supposed to be a problem. Naisbitt even divides American history along the fault line of information access.
"The following year -- 1957 -- marked the beginning of the globalization of the information revolution: The Russians launched Sputnik, the missing technological catalyst in a growing information society. The real importance of Sputnik is not that it began the space age, but that it introduced the era of global satellite communications. (12)
With satellites in the air, information flow seems sure to follow. And any measure of data traffic makes it clear huge amounts of information are in fact moving through space. Some, Toffler among them, have looked at the data traffic and remarked on the global linkages that seem to be following.
As capital flows electronically across national borders, zipping back and forth from Zurich to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Norway, Norway to Tokyo, Tokyo to Wall Street in milliseconds, information traces equally complex pathways. A change in U.S. T-bill rates or the yen -- deutsche mark ratio is instantly known around the world, and the morning after the big event in Los Angeles, youngsters in Ho Chi Minh City discuss the latest Grammy winners. The mental borders of the state become as permeable as its financial frontiers. (364)
Toffler and the others are obviously right. Information does flow more easily to many places. Who can help but be impressed by the ability to send email around the world in minutes, the chance to access libraries and databases in other nations, the transportation system that gets across continents in hours. We can get to far more information far more easily than ever before.
At least some of us can. In our excitement to explore the new opportunities be fore us, we may over look a few things. For instance, we may forget to note that half the American living on Indian Reservations have no telephones. What information will they be downloading? By concentrating on computer information, we may also forget to notice that millions of people around the globe never saw Schindler's List -- their governments wouldn't let them We sometimes even ignore our own problems, information that turns out to be lies, datalines that become doorways for thieves.
Despite all the satellites we put in the sky and the cellular phone networks we build along our interstates, there is some information we can't get. If this really is an information age, those barriers need to be examined, and ultimately they need to be removed. We will look at three barriers -- transmission problems -- not because they are the only barriers information faces, but because they represent the kinds of problems that will preoccupy our efforts to make all information available to all people. These are the problems:
· Information Exiles
· Information Criminals
Information is like any other commodity in that it is not evenly distributed across the world. Some people live in the midst of gold fields; many others can barely find coal. Some of the information vacuum we instantly recognize. For example, no one expects the Bushman of the Kalahari to walk around with cellular phones (as we will see, they have a long list of communication problems). Other isolates are less obvious. The growing army of people living in neigborhoods (or countries) too dangerous to visit certainly qualify. In either case, the number of people totally removed from the information infrastructure is huge.
What happens to these people in the information age? As subsistence farming and handicrafts persisted through the industrial age, will the disconnected continue on, barely feeding themselves, producing the primitive and quaint for middle class coffee tables? Early indications are that the disconnected will fare far worse than their predecessors in previous revolutions. The gap between the rich and the poor, the knowing and the ignorant, will be larger, the room along the margins far smaller.
While previous revolutions created classes of haves and have nots, the information age is already showing that it will be complicated by the "wills" and "won'ts." For a huge number of people, you can bring the optical fiber to Johnny, but you can't make him connect. There are no shortages of examples to prove this assertion, but let's take a contemporary example - satellite dishes. In one week's time in late 1993 three distinct corners of the world showed just how arbitrary our species can be.
The week began in China with an announcement the sale and manufacture of satellite dishes was now banned. Too many comrades were using the dishes to bring in "decadent" news and entertainment shows. Decadent information might lead to decadent ideas and then to decadent actions. So the government stepped in and satellite access ended.
The news from Algeria was more bizarre. Islamic fundamentalists decided it was no longer enough to cleanse Algeria of Western influences by murdering women tourists caught shopping in street malls. Now they had turned their attention to neighbors who had satellite dishes. Since the dishes were pointed to Europe rather than to Mecca, it was obvious Western ideas were entering the country. The response was attacks on dish owners.
But for pure cussedness, no one beats the South Africans. In 1993 with majority rule in the offing, the South African Broadcasting Corporation elected a new board of directors, including Blacks. The response of the Christian right was to refuse to pay their TV license fees and ask SABC to fix their TV's so they could no longer get public television. To these Christians it was obvious SABC was now a communist agency and would begin giving air time to Blacks and other Atheistic forces. They would rather have no television at all than risk the possibility of an occasional Black face flickering across their living room.
China, Algeria, South Africa - all places where people are deciding whether they will or won't listen, view, read or discuss. The same decision - to include or exclude - to listen or turn away - to read or ignore - is being made individually the world over. Rejectionists are constantly saying, "You don't look like me - I have nothing to learn from you," "You aren't my sex - I won't listen to you," "You are too old, too young, too light, too dark, . . ." If information is the currency of this age, much of our species is proud to wear rags.
While one group kills to keep information secret, another group uses the very technology of information to perform crimes. To remind us of the kind of people we face, let's begin with three brief horror stories - all well known, but worth repeating. Just days before he was elected President of the United States, Republicans seeking to block his election got into Bill Clinton's passport records looking for information that might be embarrassing. Here is a man only weeks from being President of the United States, yet even he is vulnerable to illegal searches.
This incident was preceded by the discovery that IRS agents in Saint Louis were calling up tax records on their computers and looking to see how much their friends and neighbors earned. They had the time, they had the technology, they had the curiosity, they didn't have the discipline, integrity, or supervision to protect honest taxpayers.
The third example is described in dramatic detail in Cuckoo's Egg (1990) by Clifford Stoll. Stoll describes in much the same fashion as a detective drama how he tracked down Communist agents who were using Internet to break into secret military archives - essentially to spy on American military bases without every leaving their homes in Europe. One of the scarier moments in the book is when he tells the Army and they refuse to believe him. If ever there was an organization that should have some security sense . . .
Every advance in electronics means that more information can be held in more places for less money and accessed more easily. Unless criminals (and governments) can be held at bay, the very technology that transmits our new-found data stream will be so dangerous we will refuse to use it. What good is a strand of optical fiber to every door, if we are too scared to plug it in?
Are We Ready for Information?
What if there really is an information explosion at some point? And what if it happened at the same time that some combination of luck and technology meant that the information got to everyone effortlessly. Would we know what to do with it? There are three ways of looking at ourselves as information processors. None of the views are very attractive.
Assuming we can find some way to get the optical fiber to Johnny, and assuming that Johnny won't be shot if he hooks up, what if Johnny can't read? A world of information may be physically and politically available to people, but it may be no more useful to them than a library is to illiterates. Some totalitarian governments figured this out long ago. It was the stated public policy of South Africa to limit the education of non-whites. Dr. H. Verwoerd began his stint as Minister of Bantu Education with a very clear statement of policy:
When I have control of Native education I will reform it so that Natives will be taught from childhood to realize that equality with Europeans is not for them. People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for the natives. Education must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.
That such words could be uttered in public says much about the tragedy of South Africa. Unfortunately, South Africa is not the only place where education has been used to control, to limit. Education is a ready weapon demagogues are ready to wield.
Even for those with some connection to basic human values, education is a problem. In the developing world where fewer than half of its citizens may make it to the sixth grade, information resources are inaccessible resources. Barely able to read, what difference does it make that they can review scientific articles from around the globe?
Brilliant, well-educated, well-connected people can also miss most of what is happening in the world. In fact it is quite likely that they will. All it requires is that they take a part of the world and explore it to the exclusion of everything else. An example often given is the railroad industry. Creating railroads is no small matter. These are complicated systems that were the technological and political extremes of their time. Leaders of the railroad industry can be forgiven for being preoccupied with getting lines built, designing locomotives that were powerful and reliable, and getting trains out on time. These were not foolish people. But they were hypnotized. By focusing exclusively on railroads they missed out on larger opportunities in transportation.
How could they and countless industries since them make such an obvious error? The information was there. Why didn’t they use it? If we are to prepare for the free flow of information, one place to start working is on our own perceptions.
Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death is a lengthy indictment on contemporary American culture. It takes only an hour or two of prime time television to fully agree. The print media follow suit. How could our founding fathers ever believe that the First Amendment would be used to protect the right of newspapers to print Elvis sightings, Lady Di's appointment calendar, and conversations with extra-terrestrials. Were we always so silly? Will the information age cause us to finally come of age and end this terminal adolescence that seems to control the US?
Maybe not. For one thing, the sheer volumes involved leave plenty of room for trivial pursuits. The typical CD-ROM drive now being built into many home computers holds 600 million bytes of information. This is somewhat in excess of 300,000 pages of text. After you put all the great books of antiquity (meaning any book on which the copyright has expired) on one disk, what do you put on the others? Articles about Elvis sightings, and Lady Di's activities, and . . . Suddenly the much vaulted information highway has become silly street. Maybe that’s what we want. Maybe the noise we hear is the noise we crave.
Fighting for Information
While it would be lovely if the nature of the world suddenly changed and we were all suddenly awash in information, as the examples above illustrate, we still live in a world where information is restricted. The limits come from institutions that reveal and pursue only information that meets their needs. The limits come from tyrrants who have already learned how to clamp down the Internet as effectively as they cut off satellite communication and television. The limits may be our own as we routinely ignore or distort information that doesn’t match our prejudices. The limits are there, overwhelming satellite launches and trenches full of fiber. If we want information, we will have to fight for it..
Why fight? An increasingly common question is "Is all this really necessary?" For the tired executive who spends all day in meetings, uses audix and email by the hour, stares at endless computer print outs and then goes home to a pile of mail and thirty channels on her cable TV, the answer might appear to be "no." Another eighty or hundred channels, yet another computer network, yet another club or association, yet another conference call, is like giving someone already eating three thousand calories a day another three or four thousand calories. They are just as likely to be sick as grateful. Yet like the person eating lots of food, all of it sugar and preservatives, it may well be wise for that person to take a look at the quality of her diet. She may discover that Theo Schoeman is not the only executive who has total access to some kinds of information, but absolute blindspots elsewhere. Hidden by the overflowing email list may be the fact that some kinds of information are absent.
If she is clever, she will survive despite the holes in her information system. Others, however, may not fare as well. For the poor, the starving, the abused, the desperate, information access may be the only hope. For these people, the stakes are life and death.
According to a report circulated by Human Rights Watch - Africa in early 1994, slavery still persists in Mauritania. While the practice is officially banned, Human Rights Watch believes there are over 100,000 slaves in the country. The government of Maaoviya Ould Sid'ahmed Taya is apparently making no effort to stop slavery or to stop cruel punishments of slaves. It is reported that the punishment for attempted escape is as follows: "the victim is seated flat with his legs spread out and buried in sand up to his waist. Coals are placed between his legs and lit, slowly burning the legs, thighs, and genitals of the victim." Since the country is so obscure few seemed aware of the atrocities being routinely committed.
The report by Human Rights Watch Africa was picked up by the wire services and carried widely throughout Africa. There was no immediate response from Mauritania, and certainly no indication that the country had suddenly decided to free its slaves. But the publicity still mattered. To the enslaved of that nation at least the possibility of freedom now exists. As long as their treatment was unknown to the rest of the world, there was no reason why their treatment might ever improve. True, just shining the light of day on vermin doesn't instantly solve the problem. When St. Louis was being gradually drowned by the Mississippi in the summer of 1993, the publicity drew thousands of spectators who stood and watched while people's homes went under. But the publicity also drew thousands of volunteers who worked in the heat and the mud to fill sand bags to save other people's homes. Both groups were out on the levees. Both groups walk the Earth. A human tragedy reduced to a five minute segment on late night TV may be ghastly entertainment to the twisted, but it can also be an alarm bell to the many who will risk everything to help. And there are people who will help when they know about a problem. To believe otherwise is to believe oneself a member of a very sad species.
Information makes the invisible visible. It will bring hope. Ultimately it will bring help.
Mary Byron lived just one day after her boy friend was released from jail. That’s how long it took him to track her down and shoot her seven times. She had no idea he was stalking her. Why should she? She thought he was in jail. “Had we known the assailant was out, our daughter would not have been working that day,” says her father, “probably not even within the state.” But the police didn’t tell her Donovan Harris was being released from jail, even though he had hurt her before.
It isn’t cheap or easy, but some communities are making more of an effort to warn past victims that their assailants are back out on the street. At a cost of $55,00 to start and $57,000 a year to operate, Louisville, Kentucky now has a computerized system that keeps track of prisoners as they move through the judicial system and notifies past victims if criminals are about to be released. The computer keeps calling until somebody answers and a taped message warns victims that their accused attackers are about to be released. It has already saved the life of one woman who ran out to get a gun when she found out her abusive husband was about to be released from jail. She returned home to find him waiting with a knife. (Davis, 1995)
Warning people that they are in danger is only part of the solution. The real solution would be to remove the danger in the first place. But until that happens, the vulnerable can be helped by at least warning them of their danger. Such warnings at least give them a better chance at life than Mary Byron had.
In Broca's Brain, Carl Sagan makes an interesting point about scientific issues that are left unresolved. He says that rich people gamble their money on projects. Scientists gamble their lives. If they invest years and years in a research project that goes nowhere, they have wasted a significant portion of their professional lives. So they look very carefully at areas of research, determining which has the most likely prospects. There is still a chance they will hit a dead-end and have nothing to show for years of work, but they at least try to improve the odds by looking before they leap.
Scientists aren't the only ones who are gambling their lives. Negumbo Johannes gambled when he chose to move to Windhoek. But his gamble was less informed. He knew nothing about the cities of Namibia. His trip to Windhoek was his first trip away from home. When interviewed, he said he chose Windhoek because when men returned from Windhoek around Christmas time, they were well-dressed when they got off the bus. On that basis he decided everyone in Windhoek was rich and he should go there.
In the US, young people the age of Negumbo Johannes are also making decisions, picking colleges, and work places. Some have been groomed for the decision for years. They have parents who are knowledgeable, or older siblings, or social connections. They have a pretty clear sense of what they are getting into. Other young men and women are wandering blind. At one urban university in the Midwest there is a special program for minority students. It appears attractive, yet records show the program graduates a mere 17% of its students even after seven years of study. That information is publicly available, but only to those who know what to ask, and where. The rest are gambling seven years of their lives on a college degree, unaware they only have one chance in six of succeeding. Would they enter the program if they knew the odds? What other situations do they face, what other burdens do they bear, what other loses do they suffer because they never understood what they were getting into? The cost of ignorance is high. People do in fact gamble their lives on their decisions.
All is not a struggle for jobs and food and safety and housing. There is still poetry and sunsets and music. There are also people who help. One of the world's blessings is the millions of these kind souls. One of the world's torments is the difficulty often encountered in using this help well. One study by the World Bank found less than one project in three was successful. Many were clearly failures even in the early years when they were receiving substantial funding. Others collapsed the minute external funding dried up.
Helping isn't easy. Good intentions lie in ruins world wide. One cause is that people seem to know too little about the problem they are trying to solve. Whether the problem is homelessness, teen pregnancy, or starvation in the Sahel, problems are always more complicated than people originally think. It is especially difficult where problems are only half seen. Getting the necessary information may involve leaving the office to actually talk to the dirty, the sick, the powerless, or it may take sneaking TV cameras past the local junta's soldiers, or getting the international accountants past the doctored books, or reading the books or articles some would rather censor. Learning comes before helping. But learning isn't easy.
There are some who are concerned that nations will be marched from one crisis to another by the power of TV images -- governments and aid agencies putting out the fire-of-the-week based on the latest CNN broadcast. A bigger problem may be the quality of the images and the quality of other information sources. For too many of the problems of the world, the necessary information just isn't coming through. We have the people and right intentions. What we often don't have is a good sense of how to use them.
So, what are the stakes? For many, the stakes are life and death. The technical, personal and social requisites to the information age are substantial and need to be recognized, but the benefits are real. Large-scale, multi-level access of information by trained citizens does not guarantee that people will suddenly drop their prejudices, stop making stupid decisions, or have the courage to act on the data before them, but it certainly gets us closer to that time than we are now. So whatever the current problems of information creation and transfer, those problems need to be solved. Let’s start by first examining the sources of information.