avg(exception) = nothing

March 25, 2011

I’m on this mailing list where everybody is suddenly raving over this new book “The Information“.  Amazon describes it as:

In a sense, The Information is a book about everything, from words themselves to talking drums, writing and lexicography, early attempts at an analytical engine, the telegraph and telephone, ENIAC, and the ubiquitous computers that followed. But that’s just the “History.” The “Theory” focuses on such 20th-century notables as Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, and others who worked on coding, decoding, and re-coding both the meaning and the myriad messages transmitted via the media of their times. In the “Flood,” Gleick explains genetics as biology’s mechanism for informational exchange–Is a chicken just an egg’s way of making another egg?–and discusses self-replicating memes (ideas as different as earworms and racism) as information’s own evolving meta-life forms. Along the way, readers learn about music and quantum mechanics, why forgetting takes work, the meaning of an “interesting number,” and why “[t]he bit is the ultimate unsplittable particle.” What results is a visceral sense of information’s contemporary precedence as a way of understanding the world, a physical/symbolic palimpsest of self-propelled exchange, the universe itself as the ultimate analytical engine. If Borges’s “Library of Babel” is literature’s iconic cautionary tale about the extreme of informational overload, Gleick sees the opposite, the world as an endlessly unfolding opportunity in which “creatures of the information” may just recognize themselves. —Jason Kirk

I don’t know about you, but I can’t piece together anything meaningful other than “Wow wow wow!!!!!”

I’m really curious to hear if anybody who reads the book actually changes their opinion on anything as a result.  I fear a lot of these books just have “something for everybody” such that you walk away feeling stronger in your belief no matter what that belief is.  Sorta like MSG: it makes everything taste better, without having any flavor by itself.  I’d love to hear somebody say “I’ve held this passionate belief my entire life, but as a result of reading this book I’ve changed my mind.”

Somewhat related, I spoke at a conference recently, and the other presenters had these really incredible, well-researched, inspiring presentations.  But I realized afterwards that a major problem with so many of these broad trend analyzes is they lack statistical relevance.

For example, I find everybody talks about Twitter, Facebook, Google, and a half-dozen mega names — and then draws inferences based on them.  But that’s equivalent to “averaging the exceptions”, which just isn’t a valid technique: the problem with outliers is they’re *outliers* and by definition defy the baseline trends.  They are too few and too different to be summarized in any meaningful way.

Rather, I think these business-fad, pop-psychology, averaging-the-exception techniques just create hysteria and excitement where perhaps none is really warranted.  Even if they’re 100% “accurate”, they’re so incredibly imprecise as to be non-actionable.  Said another way, even if you’re totally right on predicting the wave, if you can’t say with any certainty the time and magnitude when it will hit, it’s not worth getting excited about.

Don’t get me wrong, hysteria and excitement are great ways to sell books or promote products.  But as the people being sold and promoted *to*, it’s in our interests to take these fantastic claims — each of which seems increasingly fantastic with increasing frequency — with a corresponding amount of skepticism and composure.

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