Clearing the Data Smog - Davos Session Summary

January 26, 2004

Davos, Switzerland, 23 Jan 2004

The information explosion means a major paradigm shift in the way human beings receive and apply knowledge. For example, much of the information circulating on the Internet now is recycled from other sources, noted moderator Theodore Zeldin, President, The Oxford Muse, United Kingdom. Roughly 95% of scientific research is never used. "I would argue," said Zeldin, "that our universities are manufacturers of 'waste information.'"

Another concern of Zeldin's is the lack of an educational system that enables people to become generalists after they have succeeded in becoming specialists. Zeldin predicted that in the future we will need to develop new ways of communicating between disciplines.

Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive Officer, Google, USA, stressed that although his company's search algorithms are probably the best today, they are still far from perfect. Google often misses the correct response on the first try, Schmidt explained, and the problem will get worse as the Web expands. Much of the information that we need is still not accessible on the Internet today, but eventually it will be. Trying to get a machine to understand what category of information a user is looking for can also be frustrating. "Right now," Schmidt said, "all we have is your ability to type on a keyboard." In the future, he predicted all known information in the world may be stored on a device the size of an iPod. "New algorithms will be necessary to deal with the sorting problem."

Anders Igel, President and Chief Executive Officer, TeliaSonera, Sweden, pointed out that a great deal of the information circulating around us is often useless. "Overload means stress, if you are not in control of your information," he said. "Ordinary people choose basic solutions. Nothing is as efficient as the human brain. For most of us, today, that means a secretary. The problem is not technology – we have more than we need – the real effort is how you put the pieces together." On that note, Theodore Zeldin added that we often need the piece of information that we didn't know we wanted until we stumbled across it. Zeldin suggested that in the future each individual may need their own server.

Bernard Liautaud, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, Business Objects, France, suggested that in reality there is not enough genuine information. In contrast there is an overwhelming amount of data. Liautaud said that studies show that 95% of the data in corporate databases is never touched. Managers tend to make decisions based on gut instinct because they can't get meaningful access to the facts. "The corporate world," he added, "is still very much in the Stone Age. There is a lot to do before companies move from exploiting data to creating true business intelligence. There is going to be a ton of innovations, I believe, in that stage."

Jay Rosen, Chair, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, New York University, USA, noted that there is a difference between "information" and "stuff". "Information is a measure of uncertainty reduced," he added. "The problem today is that there is a great deal of uncertainty, but very little of it is being reduced." Journalists, who have been trained as information providers, he observed, are now becoming filters, essentially editors. Although many journalists seem concerned that mass media may disappear, Rosen sees the change elsewhere. "I don't think mass media will disappear," he said. "The way people communicate will change. What is under threat is the way we see people as masses."

Journalists still want to hang on to the idea of giving the public what they think it needs to know, Rosen continued, "but the problem is: how do you know what that is?" With so much choice and interactivity, the decision process is passing to the audience. An example of the change is the sudden explosion of bloggers on the Net. Success or failure of a blog is really determined by how many people on the Net decide to link to a specific blog, or to ignore another. Rosen noted that the most successful bloggers build trust with their readers, but at the same time the readers are drawn back to the sites by the unpredictability of the content. Nothing can force someone on the Net to read something that isn't interesting, and the competition is fierce.

Davos World Economic Forum
Item source: ries2004/134e.pdf

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