Someone once said of the choice among quality, price, and timely delivery, “Pick any two.” In recent years, Americans have operated under the illusion that such tradeoffs do not apply to us, at least with respect to information. The pace of technological progress has fueled this illusion.
As individuals’ access to information has improved through the seemingly relentless convergence of information technologies, people have actually started wondering when, not if, a singularity will emerge. Until this happens, we have to cope with the tradeoffs and their effects on democracy and trust.
As this blog’s other distinguished contributors and discussants has demonstrated on many occasions, homeland security professionals wrestle continuously with information management and technology policy issues that call upon us to balance information integrity, validity, and security. Inevitably, these values find themselves expressed as tensions, and tradeoffs become inevitable as we seek to meet the expectations of politicians and citizens’ insatiable ‘needs to know.’
In addition to the need to know, we must now confront the ability to know. Information and knowledge are not the same thing. Turning information into knowledge is a complex, time-consuming, and often costly process. People in general have a poor capacity for interpreting large amounts of complex information and thus acquiring appreciable knowledge of risks, especially those far removed from their everyday experience.
This became abundantly clear to me recently, as the community where I work responded to a positive test for e. coli contamination in our drinking water supply. Initial tests, like the one conducted here the day before Thanksgiving, had produced positive results on more than a dozen prior occasions without resulting in confirmation during subsequent testing. This time was different though.
By the time the positive results were confirmed and the potential extent of contamination became clear, officials had to work out who needed to know what and then worried about the best way to communicate the information without provoking undue fear. After all, they reckoned, the boil water notice issued in response to the finding in compliance with federal drinking water regulations was not itself a risk-free proposition: In other communities, more people suffered burns preparing water for consumption than suffered illness from the such contamination itself.
As word of the required actions and the city’s response to it was released to the news media and the public, feedback came in hot and fast. Why had this notice not been issued sooner? Why had officials relied so heavily on traditional media to get the word out? Why had city officials not contacted water customers directly?
Those in the community asking these questions assumed they were the first to do so. Moreover, they assumed that the answers were influenced primarily by money, technology, and administrative inertia, if not apathy or incompetence. While cost, technical capability, and bureaucratic issues all play a role in delaying or preventing action, they are not the primary cause of officials’ concerns. Those responsible for deciding when and how to act, including when and how to notify the public, tend to be consumed with concern for getting it right. Herein lies the problem: A “right” response lies in the eyes of the beholder, and the public has taken a particularly jaundiced view of official actions to manage risks, especially those that involve an intersection between complex technologies and human health.
As I was digesting the very real implications of the dilemma occurring in my own community, I became aware of a report released at the beginning of October by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. The report prepared by a commission of policy and technology experts co-chaired by former United States Solicitor General Theodore Olson and Google vice president Marisa Mayer was presented to federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski upon its release.
In short, the report warns of a growing information divide that threatens to undermine the foundations of American democracy. Addressing the divide, the report argues, will require coordinated effort on many fronts, and cannot be accomplished by either the government or the market acting alone.
Although improved access to technology, expanded transparency of government information, and increased commitment to engagement are all required, so too is increased literacy and numeracy – the capacity of people to appreciate information and turn it into useful knowledge.
So far, efforts to produce engagement even in some of the most creative, educated, and engaged communities through technology innovation have produced spotty results. Open data and application development contests intended to engage private sector partners to leverage insights from public data have produced applications that do little to advance the public good. In many cases, these applications simply make it easier for well-equipped citizens with smartphones to tell government officials they are doing a poor job responding to citizen concerns, while increasing the volume of complaints they have to deal with before they can get on with the work needed to remedy the underlying causes of what might otherwise be legitimate problems.
In other cases, applications that improve the efficiency of individual competition for consumption of public goods like parking spaces pass for innovation. In still others, externalities clearly outweigh efficiencies by making undigested or unconfirmed information available in forms that further erode confidence in government.
In the early days of the republic, a learned man or woman of modest means could acquire a decent command of all available knowledge by applying him or herself with rigor and discipline. Indeed, the signers of our own Declaration of Independence distinguished themselves as knowledgeable in a diverse array of subjects ranging from philosophy to law to agriculture to military strategy to engineering to commerce to religion.
Today, not one of us has any hope of achieving comparable mastery of extant knowledge. The volume of information already in existence and the pace of new discoveries have simply become too vast, too specialized, too detailed, and too isolated from everyday experience for anyone to master regardless of mettle or means. This does not seem to have lowered public expectations though.
In a world where people share information in real-time with one another over distances of thousands of miles and have instant access to hundreds of television channels, dozens of radio stations, and zettabytes (one zettabyte equals one billion terabytes) of data how do we overcome the illusion that information access equals knowledge? With all of this information floating around us all the time, how do we decide what to tell people, when to tell them, and what method to use?
In the online discussion that emerged following the recent water contamination scare here, one participant in noted, “People do not trust institutions, they trust people.” For him, at least, it was important not so much that someone had the answers to his questions, as it was that someone took responsibility for responding to his concerns. In the absence of an official somebody, it seems anybody will do. He, and many others, argued that the absence of official pronouncements only encouraged others to fill the void.
Not long ago, we relied upon media to do this for us. That has changed, and media no longer have the capacity they once did to hold government accountable or to lower public expectations. To the extent that media play an influential role in public debates these days, they are more likely to reinforce our biases than clarify positions or encourage dialogue.
It remains unclear whether social media or other technologies will bridge the gap between knowledge haves and have-nots. If time is running out on our information illusions and our nation’s capacity to maintain trust in government and its democratic legitimacy are threatened by this growing divide, what will we make of the choice between integrity, validity, and security in the future and how will cost, quality, and timeliness influence our decisions?