The price of information

By | 2014/03/19

To say that speculation over the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is rampant would be a huge understatement.

This blog is not about the disappearance of the flight. There’s no theory about hijacking, catastrophic failure, suicide or Langoliers in this blog.

Beyond the human tragedy, I’m finding the deluge of speculation in itself to be an intriguing example of the way in which our society has evolved. To be fair, this is something demonstrated regularly by paparazzi and odious celebrity gossip magazines, but that can be more easily dismissed due to the histrionic unchecked innuendo being spread as ‘stories’.

Since the dawn of recorded history, and undoubtedly before that, humans have bought and sold goods and services. We still do that – Western Society in particular became overwhelmingly dedicated to consumption.

For the past couple of decades, but growing daily, there’s a new thing being bought and sold: information.

The mindWe’re addicted to it. During my first year of University one of my philosopher professors opined that we had reached a new age – stone, bronze, iron, industrial and now information. Those brackets exist as much to reflect the highest technology as they do what becomes the most valuable possession.

If information is the new desirable possession, then the obvious next question is: what’s the currency?

In actual fact there’s almost entirely different currencies, one old, one new. The old currency is money – whether people pay for a subscription to a website or hand over money for a newspaper, they’re paying for access to information.

Yet, the failure to develop a successful micropayment system for information access has led to a new currency: attention. Nothing is truly free, and when we don’t pay for information with our money, we’re paying for it with our attention.

At the basest level that leads to the profligate clickbait sites of both old and new media formats: the sites that sell advertising based on how many visitors they get. Such sites are offering access to the reader for free because they’re selling the reader to the advertisers. Or the suggestion of the reader.

But ultimately clickbait sites are the fetid-fliers of the information age. A clickbait site develops its entire business model around emotionally speculative headlines that have a chance of becoming memetic viruses – at least for a short period of time. Just long enough to get the next advertising revenue hit.

Jackie came home early from lunch to surprise her husband. You won’t believe what happened next!

How did this little boy react to getting cancer?

This man turned 107. You’ll be amazed how he celebrated!

Clickbait is a highly accurate term. It’s like fishing, but you’re using the promise of an emotional fix – the sell to the user is an adrenaline or endorphin rush disguised as information.

And people pay for it with their attention.

Just like they’re paying with their attention around the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370.

Of course, it makes sense that people are interested. People say all the time that this is a period of instant gratification, and perhaps nowhere is it more so the case than with information. The more regular or astute internet users are used to being able to find out seemingly any publicly accessible information they want with just a few queries.

And each time, they pay with attention.

What flight 370 proves, in a terribly tragic way of course, is that when information isn’t available, many people settle for opinion and speculation. Of course, there’s currency to be had in both at times, but when it jumps the shark, so to speak, it becomes a pyrrhic sale: it creates a feedback into the information cycle that demands attention, and escalates the urgency of providing fresh ‘data’.

But when there’s no new data? Then a substitute has to be found.

So instead of people paying for ‘gold’ with their attention, they’re paying for ‘fools gold’.

If we are to successfully live in the information age, we have to become much better at sorting the dross from the silver. For other commodity items – cars, jewellery, and so on, people either develop an intrinsic understanding of the potential value for the object, or they may get it expertly valued. For the most part, society relies on those expert valuations. Jewellers, real estate agents, valuers and collectors – the list goes on. Society relies on experts to filter the dross.

But information comes so thick and fast that we don’t have the option to stop on a daily basis and get information expertly valued. We have to become the experts. Every one of us.

The price of information may be money or attention, but the cost of the information age is a requisite change in how we think and how we differentiate between fact, opinion and speculation.

If we get it right, it’ll be a small price to pay.