Information Isn’t Just Power

Review by Lucy Bernholz  in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:  “Information is power.” This truism pervades Missed Information, an effort by two scientists to examine the role that information now plays as the raw material of modern scholarship, public policy, and institutional behavior. The scholars—David Sarokin, an environmental scientist for the US government, and Jay Schulkin, a research professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University—make this basic case convincingly. In its ever-present, digital, and networked form, data doesn’t just shape government policies and actions—it also creates its own host of controversies. Government policies about collecting, storing, and analyzing information fuel protests and political lobbying, opposing movements for openness and surveillance, and individual acts seen as both treason and heroism. The very fact that two scholars from such different fields are collaborating on this subject is evidence that digitized information has become the lingua franca of present-day affairs.

To Sarokin and Schulkin, the main downside to all this newly available information is that it creates an imbalance of power in who can access and control it. Governments and businesses have visibility into the lives of citizens and customers that is not reciprocated. The US government knows our every move, but we know what our government is doing only when a whistleblower tells us. Businesses have ever more data and ever-finer ways to sort and sift it, yet customers know next to nothing about what is being done with it.

The authors argue, however, that new digital networks also provide opportunities to recalibrate the balance of information and return some power to ordinary citizens. These negotiations are under way all around us. Our current political debates about security versus privacy, and the nature and scope of government transparency, show how the lines of control between governments and the governed are being redrawn. In health care, consumers, advocates, and public policymakers are starting to create online ratings of hospitals, doctors, and the costs of medical procedures. The traditional oneway street of corporate annual reporting is being supplemented by consumer ratings, customer feedback loops, and new information about supply chains and environmental and social factors. Sarokin and Schulkin go to great lengths to show the potential of tools such as comparison guides for patients or sustainability indices for shoppers to enable more informed user decisions.

This argument is important, but it is incomplete. The book’s title, Missed Information, refers to “information that is unintentionally (for the most part) overlooked in the decision-making process—overlooked both by those who provide information and by those who use it.” What is missing from the book, ironically, is a compelling discussion of why this “missed information” is missing. ….

Grouping the book with others of the “Big Data Will Save Us” genre isn’t entirely fair. Sarokin and Schulkin go to great lengths to point out how much of the information we collect is never used for anything, good or bad….(More)”