Knowing Is Half the Battle

During this year’s State of the Union address I tweeted:

In the next ten years, the lack of widespread affordable high-speed Internet will fragment the country. That needs to be solved now. #sotu

That’s inaccurate. But, in my defense, it’s inaccurate because I was limited by how much I could say at one time. Since I’ve been invited to the White House Tweetup this Monday, I wanted to take a couple of paragraphs to flesh out this idea, since I think it’s what got me invited in the first place.

Let’s start out with why that statement is inaccurate: the lack of affordable high-speed Internet isn’t what’s going to fragment the country, information asymmetry is the culprit. Information asymmetry may be correlated with the lack of affordable, high-speed Internet, but the Internet in and of itself is just a tool for delivering information; it’s meaningless without content.

So what is information asymmetry? Essentially it’s when one party has more information than another and is better able to make decisions because of it. Most definitions you’ll find include both parts (more information and making better decisions), but truly the first part is all that’s necessary.

The second part of that definition, though, is why this is such a pressing problem. We see one group of people who continually become more and more informed and thus are able to make better decisions because of it. Eventually the decision equilibrium is thrown off and someone starts to win and someone starts to lose. That’s when information asymmetry goes from being an inconvenience to a pressing problem. This may be simplifying matters a bit too much, but many of the problems we’re facing today come from the fact that one person is able to take advantage of another person based on information that he or she has that the other person does not.

To make matters worse, information is a process. It’s stackable. What I’ll learn about tomorrow is built upon what I learned about yesterday. There’s no way to get around that; it’s why you have to go to first grade before seventh grade. While learning has non-linear tendencies, it’s a decidedly linear process. This means that this isn’t a problem we can turn around overnight. It’s a problem that needs to be solved now, so that we can stop reaping the consequences in ten years.

But, how do you solve for this? It’s not like you can (or should) force people to become more informed (as if “informed” is a palpable, achievable goal). But, what you can do is break down the barriers that are preventing people from getting there. Widespread, affordable, high-speed Internet access can contribute. Putting information in a forum that people pay attention to (e.g. social media) can as well. Tailoring information to target specific groups is another way. These are all easier said than done and there are a thousand questions that need to be asked (What is information? How much needs to be spread? What constitutes as something that people need to know?), but it’s a direction we need to move in quickly, before we lose the attention of the general public.

I wanted to say this now because in my application to the White House Tweetup, I mentioned that one of the things that interests me about Twitter is how it’s engaged people with issues. Folks who would never pick up the New York Times or the Economist are now exposed to those ideas on a daily basis. Granted, it’s a shallow exposition, but knowing is half the battle. Acting on this knowledge may well be the other half, but that’s a struggle for another day.