Information in the Age of Information

In this so-called Age of Information, what information is really available? And who gets to decide that?

People often talk as though it’s common wisdom that we live in the “Age of Information”. But what do we mean by this anyway? What data do we all supposedly have? It’s true that information is available at our fingertips in a new way, with our access to search engines on the Internet. If I wanted, I could find the current age of the King of Sweden in less than half a minute (I just did, by the way; he’s 70). And I think this is a great thing, and certainly it’s part of the Age of Information. But there’s a lot more information than that, since there’s a lot of information people collect but keep locked up, for privacy reasons. To be clear, I’m not saying those privacy reasons aren’t legitimate. I think they’re very important. But they bring to light a very crucial fact that there’s a big difference between data existing (i.e. having been recorded) and being available.

Let me give an example. Swarthmore tracks, at least to some extent (I don’t know how much of the data are kept or discarded) all sorts of information on its students, on their intended majors when they enter and what majors they declare. Some data are deemed safe for public consumption; so you can see on Swarthmore’s website the intended major distribution of incoming freshmen, or the final major distribution of outgoing seniors. But you can’t see trajectories; that is, you can’t see whether people are more likely to end up majoring in Philosophy if they originally intended a Biology or a History major.

Again, privacy matters. Some data should be kept private. But who gets to decide it’s fine to reveal the percentage of math majors, but not what percentage of intended math majors end up as math majors? Only those who control the data, who are allowed to see it, can process it; so they have to do all the work to make processed data available themselves. What data are worth processing must be a deliberate decision. And only the people who have the raw data have the power to make that decision.

There’s a deep infrastructure behind what data we end up seeing, what takes it from private and sensitive raw data to information sufficiently aggregated and processed that it’s fit for the public eye. This is, indeed, an Age of Information. But the information we see is almost always what someone else, who controls the raw data, thought was ethical to share, and important enough to bother sharing.