The Expense of Meaning
There is a legendary tale that Nathan Rothschild, the founder of the banking firm of N. M. Rothschild & Sons, rode beside Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo and when it looked like Britain had won the day, he put spurs to his horse and made for London as fast as he could. He crossed the channel and the next morning bought as much British government paper as he could. A fortune was made as the news of Napoleon’s defeat became known.1
Information can be valuable and worth obtaining even at great cost.
That was yesterday.
Today information is cheap.
It presents itself wherever we look; both with, and without, lights and sound. Take the instrument panel of a Toyota Prius. One would think one was on the bridge of an interstellar cruiser as the real-time power distribution screen shows whether the engine is running off fuel or battery and which is supplying what. Little data points march across the display, change color, and move back again.
Information is not just displayed wholesale in your car. Flat screens and display panels big and small have sprouted on almost every electronic device. Soon, if the trend continues, even your toilet will come with its own touch screen as many do in Japan2.
George Dyson of engineering and vacuum cleaner fame said, “We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive.”3
What does this mean?
To have meaning, information must make sense. It must be relevant. It must be timely and useful. It must be valuable and worth obtaining.
Information must be examined. Work and effort must be expended to separate what is important from what is not; what is true from false.
Of the ten paragraphs above, which one is the most meaningful and significant?
I am sure this could be debated, but I choose the last paragraph: ‘Information must be examined…’
I chose it for two reasons.
The first is because it highlights why Google, Inc. has been so successful.
Imagine you have to make your way to the street from your front door, but the path is blocked with chest-deep snow that fell during the night. You have a snow shovel. What do you do? You take it, pick up a chunk of snow in the direction you want to travel, and shovel it up and to the side. You repeat this many times.
The above illustrates an algorithm. It is a series of simple steps to accomplish a task.
Google’s success is due to a patented search algorithm called PageRank. It returns pages in order of importance based on the original search words.
In the case of Google search, the PageRank algorithm does the work. The data it uses are all the websites accessible on the Internet.
It is because of PageRank that the company is today one of the most valuable in existence.4
The second reason I chose the paragraph: ‘Information must be examined…’ is because it encapsulates a choice that is before each of us today.
When a search engine returns an answer it actually returns two. The first is of course the results you see. The second is the NOT search. All the items the search did not show. Although not visible, they are there just the same.
The search engine is really communicating the following if such things could speak:
“Hi there, here is what we (the algorithm) found. There are, of course, fifty-three thousand other results but really, we think you should look at the ones we have delineated here on the following 100 pages. There are others that may be relevant, perhaps even more so, but we understand you are very busy and can’t spare the time, so here is what we think is important. It’s been swell. See you again soon. We used .43 seconds helping you. Really.”
Who really expended the effort here and were the results meaningful?
Of course to look up the schedule of a store or to find the closest mall outlet, this works well, but what about more important research?
It is worth noting that if we rely on others to do our searching, we will be handed whatever results these others have decided have meaning for us.
Even more significant is that we base our future decisions on this information; not just you and me, but millions and millions of us.
As an example, let’s suppose we want to know workable methods to combat high cholesterol. What is returned are numerous articles, claims and references about high cholesterol based on what criteria? It is true we are getting results about high cholesterol, but perhaps not the ones that are the most meaningful.
Whether we like it or not we are being channeled directly by the results we get and more subtly by the indirect results of the NOT searches. It is like wandering in the dark with a small flashlight looking only at the light.
Make no mistake, gaining meaningful information is expensive, and if it isn’t expensive, it may not be meaningful.
That which has meaning is lost in an ocean of information clamoring for our attention whether on Facebook, in our inbox, or beeping on our smartphone.
If there is a race for meaning, many are spending a great deal to find it.
Google has been investing millions, if not billions, in obtaining information of all types. It has hired the brightest young talent available. It is sparing very little expense.
Governments also have been on a frenzy to gather information, and they too have spared no expense.
Whatever are they doing with it all?
In contrast what are you paying to get information? Nothing?
Let’s explore a little further.
The other day I got an email from a content marketing intern. It said:
Your site is hosting a link for our website: (xxxxxx). I would like to ask you to please remove the following link from your page and let me know when they (sic) are down. It would be much appreciated…”
This had to do with a citation link on a previous article.
When queried, the person responded by saying:
“We need the link removed for SEO reasons only. It has nothing to do with your site or content. It would be much appreciated if you could remove them….”
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. Search Engine Optimization is the process of making a website more visible. In other words how to move from page 412 to page 1. There is a whole industry dedicated to moving websites up the rankings so you will see them. There is another industry dedicated to maintaining those high-ranked websites as continued high-ranked websites. People are paying to be what you are searching for.
Someone is paying good money (think expensive) to have you look at them. What does that tell you about the validity of your searches?
By the way, how much are you paying for your news service?
I didn’t think so.
There is an old adage in poker playing. If you don’t know who the sucker is at the table, you are the sucker.
Perhaps there is truth in the saying you get what you pay for.
Look again at what Dyson said:
“We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive.”5
This does not mean that we need to go out and spend vast sums for information necessarily although that would seem to follow, but at the very least it does demand that we recognize that we ought to put in significant effort if our results are to have meaning.
We must take the time to sift and weigh the information we receive and not just accept it.
We must question.
We must seek to discard what is false and keep what we believe to be true after careful examination.
We must do these things because otherwise our decisions will be selected for us.
We will be herded based on information that is not meaningful to us but meaningful and determined by those who have spared no expense to gather it and make it meaningful to themselves. We think it is all for us and it’s free. How nice is that, right?
Maybe not so nice.
- Hamilton, A. (2000). Rothschilds. British Banking History Society. Retrieved on September 12, 2014 from http://www.banking-history.co.uk/rothschild.html
- Daub, J. (June 17, 2011) The Amazing Toilets of Japan. Retrieved September 12, 2014 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Xnm1syPnwE
- Dyson, G. (2011). Conversation with The European. Retrieved on September 12, 2014 from http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/george-dyson–2/6036-evolution-and-innovation.
- Karch, M. (N.D.) What is PageRank and How do I use it? About.com. Retrieved September 12, 2014 from http://google.about.com/od/searchengineoptimization/a/pagerankexplain.htm
- Dyson, op.cit
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© 2014 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.