Trusting Data

Modern Day Information

George Carlin had an excellent piece on the meaning of words. He said that, “Words are not offensive by themselves, it’s the context that makes them offensive”. Similar concept applies to information feeds such as newspapers, books, television, Internet etc. People that create or provide the information might have a variety of reasons for doing so, not all of them completely honest or fair. For instance advertisements: they attempt to convince you to buy or do something. And some of these products or services might be something you actually need, thus it might be a good thing that you have just seen that ad on TV. Simultaneously an advertisement is there to make things look interesting to you, which means it might be misleading. This is a blurred line and there’s an entire industry making sure nobody crosses it too visibly. Information consumers do not like to be treated like fools, after all.

And we have the glorious Internet. The speed at which information is being produced over the Internet is tremendous. No brain can remember it all, let alone actually analyze the data. It was easier with paper, wasn’t it? You just picked your favorite title and trusted its authors were not trying to fool you. They had much more time to think about the information before publishing it, which among other things meant there was more time to verify it. With Internet, these processes are expedited and more difficult to control. We are flooded with information, so we attempt to filter it. We pick the news more or less randomly, following people we trust to verify the authenticity better than we can. And everyone needs to keep up, publish or perish, including the people who provide us the daily news. This means corrections have to be made often, because it’s better to publish unverified information than none. This means slowly but steadily we are trusting less and less the information itself.

Where does it lead?

What will be the consequences? Is “This” ( initiative showing the new direction in the evolution of the Internet? Does limiting the rate at which information gets published increase the accuracy? I think anyone having the proper answers deserves a Nobel Prize. The Internet broke the monopoly on information, which in many places of the world was the privilege of those in power. In some places, it still is. Internet replaced the lack of information with the abundance of it. Next thing we need to do is to figure out is how to distinguish garbage from valuable information in that flood.

Trusting Product Data

This brings me to the aspect of my job I particularly enjoy. Producers of product data (mechanical and electrical engineers) by nature tend to publish factual, objective and unbiased information. With product data, I don’t need to think, “What were the motivations of Mr. X, who designed the part I’m looking at right now?” Product Data is not subject to the “publish first verify later” trend that affects Internet information streams. Similarly, product engineers have little or nothing to gain from that method of publishing information. This makes my life much easier. That’s a kind of luxury in the world where you find yourself confused (at best) or angry at the never-ending stream of inaccurate information that is flowing around you. All engineers probably know that. But, once in a while all of them should stop and think about that. And, perhaps, make a drink to celebrate.

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