Information Democracy

Nick Carr wrote a piece a while ago about the pros and cons of easy information distribution of information. Specifically the double edged sword: GPS http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2008/01/looking_at_a_se.php

As GPS transceivers become common accessories in cars, the benefits have been manifold. Millions of us have been relieved of the nuisance of getting lost or, even worse, the shame of having to ask a passerby for directions.

But, as with all popular technologies, those dashboard maps are having some unintended consequences. In many cases, the shortest route between two points turns out to run through once-quiet neighborhoods and formerly out-of-the-way hamlets.

Scores of villages have been overrun by cars and lorries whose drivers robotically follow the instructions dispensed by their satellite navigation systems.

That’s the problem with the so-called transparency that’s resulting from instantly available digital information. When we all know what everyone else knows, it becomes ever harder to escape the pack.
There is, of course, much to be said for the easy access to information that the internet is allowing. Information that was once reserved for the rich, the well-connected, and the powerful is becoming accessible to all. That helps level the playing field, spreading economic and social opportunities more widely and fairly.

At the same time, though, transparency is erasing the advantages that once went to the intrepid, the dogged, and the resourceful … The commuter who pored over printed maps to find a short cut to work finds herself stuck in a jam with the GPS-enabled multitudes.

You have to wonder whether, as what was once opaque is made transparent, the bolder among us will lose the incentive to strike out for undiscovered territory. What’s the point when every secret becomes, in a real-time instant, common knowledge?

I don’t buy the argument.

It’s safe to assume that technological advances (like GPS) will lead to externalities (unintended side effects, both positive and negative). I live in a village which suffers every now and again from GPS-enabled truck drivers getting stuck in narrow lanes – so I can see where he’s coming from with this particular criticism. But it seems to me that Nick is arguing something more than just about side-effects. He seems to arguing that there is something in the very nature of the technological advances – “what was once opaque is made transparent” – that devalues us. That makes us less willing to strike out for something new.

Hogwash. What is the point of striking out for undiscovered territory? People will always do that just for the hell of it, in the hope of commercial gain or personal aggrandisement. For a number of reasons. What they are striking out for may be different to what their grand-parents considered undiscovered but they will continue nonetheless.

I like analogies. When I think of Nick Carr railing against GPS making it “too easy” to get from A to B I try to imagine similar scenarios. So how about going back 1000 years to the introduction of the abacus into Western Europe which made it far easier to do your maths than it would have been to multiply CLXI by XIV in Roman Numerals. In the same way that GPS democratises navigational data, the abacus democratised the ability to do mathematical calculations. That’s a good thing, right?

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