Updated: Sep 17
Insight and tools to be a responsible information curator in a world drowning in data noise.
by Jeff Hulett, February 26, 2021
In our article, Changing Our Mind, I discuss the use of curated information for making good decisions, especially in the context of change decisions. But what is curated information? More importantly, how do we train ourselves to increase exposure to curated information while actively avoiding noisy, non curated data. In this article, I explore the dynamic world of curated information.
This article is presented with the following sections:
I regularly consume curated information for my professional life and for my personal life. This helps fulfill my curiosity and otherwise provides a practical guide to living. This article addresses the importance of curated information, especially, as helpful to our reasoning process. The article makes the case that individual information curation is a citizen’s responsibility in a democratic republic. Information curation is most important to the health of our democracy. Today, it seems information curation is more likely to be overlooked in a world increasingly awash in non curated data. The article is informed by several thinkers and artists, both from our modern time and from centuries ago.
To begin, generally, it is important to be a curator of the information you accept to support your beliefs.
Be careful to choose quality, less biased sources;
Even then, fact check with multiple sources; and,
When possible, allow for time when making an important decision.
Be patient and persistent in your pursuit of truth. In many cases, emotion can be a deceptive input to your reasoning process and run contrary to information curation. Think of emotion as a metadata tag that attaches itself to most sensory data. For example, I smell a delicious apple pie baking and I have a big project due. Is eating apple pie a good idea?
Initial emotion response => YES! (smell of apple pie = happy + calories to live.)
Following evaluation response => NO! (thought of apple pie = sugar concern + sugar energy crash.)
Whether making a significant voting decision or a small pie eating decision, one should use curated information as an input to the reasoning process. As such, except for extreme situations like running from a lion, wait for emotion to resolve itself prior to making a decision. There is information in emotion. However, it is almost impossible to properly extract information from a) emotion or b) existing curated information at the time one is in an emotional state.
Please see Note (1) for the pie example using our Brain Model, including the mental pathways associated with sensory data, emotion tagging metadata, and the different brain functions used in the decision process.
The New Censorship
This graphic is a helpful framework for evaluating the curative quality of a particular information source. I like it because of its simplicity and focus on the information source bias and quality dimensions. The actual information sources cited on the graphic likely change over time.
Credit: Ad Fontes Media
Information curation is particularly important in a world drowning with data. It is important to separate meaning from noise. Michelangelo took this to heart when describing his sculpture of David:
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
- Michelangelo (1475-1564)
Here, Michelangelo is describing the removed marble as the noise and the remaining statue as the meaning. I often find knowledge and creation come from the removal of that which is already there, not from the building of that which is not there. (2)
Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci does a nice job defining the new censorship in our social media driven modern world. In many ways, the new censorship is the opposite of the “book burning” censorship of past generations:
“The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself.”
Even great philosophers and logicians of past centuries anticipated our human nature that makes us vulnerable to today's new censorship.
“In general, men take for the groundwork of their philosophy either too much from a few topics, or too little from many; in either case their philosophy is founded on too narrow basis of experiment and natural history, and decides on too scanty grounds."
"For the theoretic philosopher seizes various common circumstances by experiment, without reducing them to certainty or examining and frequently considering them, and relies for the rest upon meditation and the activity of his wit.”
- Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1629), from Novum Organum
Bacon is describing the importance of finding the appropriate level of curated information to support our beliefs (what Bacon calls "philosophy") and some of the pitfalls (not reducing to certainty) of using inductive (experiment) or deductive (wit) based reasoning.
As the pace of technology associated with non curated data delivery increases, our ability to synthesize and individually integrate technology change fails to keep pace. In effect, humanity is a victim of our slow evolutionary genetic changes. This difference between technology and genetic change creates a fertile and susceptible environment for the new censorship. While the Gutenberg printing press (circa 1440) may have been the first technology related to improved data delivery, the pace of change has increased rapidly in recent decades, in step with the computer and the internet. (3)
“Much of our problem comes from the fact that we have evolved out of such a habitat faster, much faster, than our genes. Even worse, our genes have not changed at all.”
- NN Taleb, from Fooled By Randomness
The Information Time Cycle
Tim Harford (born 1973), in his 2021 book Data Detective, discusses the importance of the time cycle of curated information.
“Daily news always seems more informative than rolling news; weekly news is typically more informative than daily news. A book is often better still. Even within a daily or a weekly newspaper, I find myself preferring the slower-paced explanation and analysis rather than the breaking news.”
Harford’s observation (Harford is an academically trained economist and a media industry participant) is along the lines of how my information curation has evolved over the years:
Per the graphic, I consume information from high quality, minimally biased sources. That is, in the top, middle of the graphic. There is no such thing as “unbiased” information. All we can hope to do is understand and discard bias, much the way Michelangelo removed unneeded marble.
I have lengthened my information curation cycle. Today, I consume The Economist (weekly) and Wired (monthly) periodicals. I have given up my subscriptions to daily (sorry WSJ and FT!) and do not consider rolling news. (4) Finally, books are the most important source of my curated information.
In terms of the percent of my time spent consuming information, over 80% is from books, with the remainder being periodicals and research articles. I have found books to be most effective at building foundational understanding. That is, books help facilitate and expand your thinking, they do not tell you what to think.
I am a big believer in paying for information. I want to make sure it is right and I want to reward those for making it right. If you are not paying for information, I would be concerned about conflict of interest and the motivations of those providing potentially non curated data. (5) As per one of my favorite quotes:
“If you are not paying for the product, YOU are the product.”
- this quote was mentioned in the 2020 documentary film, The Social Dilemma.
Curiosity Exploration Approach
You may ask, "What is the purpose of curated information? How do I use it?" For me, curated information feeds my “always on” curiosity. The following is an overview of my approach to using curated information. This is accomplished via reading, thinking, connecting the dots, writing, and editing. It is an evolutionary process that can be described as a heuristic learning spiral (see the graphic). My approach to learning is facilitated via a biological evolution like model, including trial, error correcting, and action updating processes. The learning spiral uses reasoning associated with both Deduction (like theory development) and Induction (like theory testing and updating via practice and experience.) Curated information informs each step of the deductive and inductive growth ladder. If interested in a deeper dive of how curated information is considered in the context of our overall curiosity enablement, please see the article Curiosity Exploration, an evolutionary approach to lifelong learning.
In 1903, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) gave a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, titled Citizen In A Republic. This is the same speech that gave us the timeless “Man In The Arena” passage. Roosevelt discusses the importance of the “average person” in our democracy.
“But with you and us the case is different. With you here, and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional cries which call for heroic virtues.”
- Theodore Roosevelt, bolding added
Along the lines of Roosevelt, I consider information curation of the “average person” to be one of the most important individual duties of our democracy. Unfortunately, the current trend is less toward information curation based reason and more toward non curated data based emotional reaction. Those that sow non curated data, do so for a reason. That is, they wish to provoke a loosely considered emotional response. Those emotions often come from an internal place contrary to information curation…. that is, from an internal place of information insecurity. (6) The recent storming of the U.S. Capitol (7) certainly appears to have elements motivated from information insecurity. The personal and societal cost of information insecurity is high. Information curation takes effort and has a cost, but is most important to the health of our democracy. Fortunately, the effort of information curation is its own reward. Information curation provides the calming confidence of curiosity enablement. Plus, a security blanket to repel the demons of information insecurity.
(1) Using the apple pie example, we will use the brain model to help specify the impact of data (sensory information) and the metadata (emotion). It will be good to have the brain model available for this exercise. Smell, as a sensory input, is generally considered one of our strongest emotion based senses. Think of this process as a dynamic and iterative mental system looping process.
Initial emotion response => YES! - after the delicious apple pie baking smell enters the brain as sensory input, then a limbic system based neurotransmitter metatag ("NT tag") is immediately placed on the smell data. The NT tag is relatively high intensity, so is oriented toward the Right Hemisphere ("RH") part of our Cerebral Cortex. The RH, as part of its emotional thought function, resolves the smell as a happy emotion that generally provides life sustaining calories. But, before the sensory output of eating the pie, another mental pathway loop is activated via the brain's feedback mechanism. This is found in step 2. (by the way, in a child, this feedback process may not happen as much. On average, these feedback mechanisms, called "executive functioning," do not fully mature until our mid to late 20s. Makes you wonder why kids are allowed to drive at age 16....do not get me started!)
Following evaluation response => NO! - as the next step in our mental feedback process, the limbic memory is now activated. Two pieces of associated raw (long-term) memory data are provided, that is, 1) raw sugar is not particularly good for the human body, and 2) high sugar based calories can cause energy levels to drop not long after initially consumed. Another NT tag is generated, this time, relatively low intensity and oriented to the Left Hemisphere ("LH") part of our Cerebral Cortex. The LH, as part of its a) analytical thought, b) detail oriented perception, and c) order sequencing, among other thought functions, resolves the smell and memory based tags as a sugar concern.
Sensory Output - As such, the sensory output is to grab a low sugar snack and put off eating the pie to a more appropriate time.
The point of this example is to help describe how the brain processes data and the different impacts, especially over time, associated with non curated data and curated information. By the way, notice the brain model, the RH handles non-verbal processing, and the LH handles verbal processing chores. In the context of emotion and curated information, this is very significant. Basically, emotion generally has no language, it shows up as a feeling or intuition. As such, understanding your own emotion and drawing appropriate information is both hard and important. Our own biology is working against us!
In many ways marketing, whether it be the marketing of pies or political candidates, can be geared toward generating certain high intensity NT tags and isolating our RH. In this context, it would seem our RH is naïve and not very smart. Quite the contrary, the RH is generally the source of our wisdom, what Albert Einstein called the "Sacred Gift." Used properly, the RH can guide the actions of the LH. But without the LH, the RH can be susceptible to persuasive marketing. Bottom line, we need both our LH and RH to make informed decisions. The quality of your information curation is the primary source of those informed decisions.
(2) For other examples, see our brief article Intelligence by subtraction.
(3) See Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise. In the book’s introduction, Silver does a nice job summarizing the history of data technologies starting with Gutenberg.
(4) To be fair, I do have other sources of curated information associated with my business. I work for Promontory Financial Group, an IBM Company. On a daily basis, I receive a curated list of articles related to the Financial Services industry. I do review the list and periodically will read a particularly relevant article, sometimes from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Financial Times (FT) or others.
(5) There is a difference between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Much ink has been spilled related to these differences and is far beyond the scope of this article. However, allow me to leave you with one of my favorite related aphorisms:
“Where is the wisdom?
Lost in the knowledge.
Where is the knowledge?
Lost in the information.” - T. S. Eliot
“Where is the information?
Lost in the data.
Where is the data?
Lost in the damn database!” - Joe Celko
(6) "Information Insecurity" is a loosely defined term. I have seen it used in an information security context specific to cyber threats and cyber security. For this article, I am using it in a more humanistic context, similar to food insecurity - "The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life." Similarly, I think of information insecurity as a lack of curated information to support common life decisions, especially decisions associated with our democracy. (e.g., candidate information necessary to inform the vote.)
(7) Here is a link to an article related to the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The following is the article preamble:
- Do you wonder how the attack on our capitol was a symptom of a much deeper problem?
- Do you wonder how our political system could change to address these symptoms?
- Do you wonder what the Founding Generation would think of our current political system?
- Do you wonder how social media distorts our political system?
- Do you wonder how our own brains contribute to the problem?
Via science, technology, business strategy, and historical context; this article “connects the dots" on these questions. It provides specific actions each of us may take for positive change!
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