Friday, September 26, 2008

Failure of Filters

The title from this post is taken from the keynote that Clay Shirky delivered at the NY Web2.0 Expo in September 2008. The premise of the keynote is that the “information overload” we are facing is not a problem but a fact (one that has been around since Gutenberg and his movable type press) and what we are seeing now is the collapse of the traditional filters that mediated the information overload.

The existing filters for information were founded in the difficulty of moving information over distance. The various communications technologies of the 20th Century have steadily eroded the tyranny of distance. The web completed the destruction of distance filters by removing all concept of spatial distance for information.
Our sense of privacy is again bounded up in the hassle in moving information over distance. This physical distance is the basis for the whole concept of privacy. The closer we are to other people the less privacy we expect. We found that to be a reasonable rule of thumb as those closest to us (community, family, friends) are likely to spatially close to us. We only now need privacy safeguards because the rule of thumb no longer applies – spatial distance is meaningless for information now.

Information overload and privacy issues are a rooted in us expecting that filters based on spatial distance to continue working in a world where information has no spatial component. Any filters built with this expectation don’t work. Instead we have to create a new framework for filters that don’t rely on spatial distance.

By borrowing ideas from science we can create a framework that doesn’t rely on spatial distance. The framework is based on data half-life, data permeability and data potential. Data half-life is the measure of how long the bit of data takes to lose half of its relevancy/ importance. Data permeability is a measure of how hard it is for data to move over a period of time – think fluid moving through a filter. Data potential is the initial potential for the data to move – think potential energy in Newtonian dynamics.

The interaction of these three parameters determines how far and how quickly information can travel within an environment where spatial distance has no meaning. An analogy will help illustrate how the parameters behave together to filter information.

Let’s say we have some information – death of the chief of a village. The village has good roads and the news is to be sent by horse. This information will go far as it important (chief of a village), it is easy for the information to move on the road and the horse is quick. If, however, the death is not the chief then the news won’t travel as far it is not as important. It is the interaction between the data half-life (how important the person is), the data permeability (how easy it is to move the information) and data potential (how fast the information can move) which determines how far the information will travel.

Changing the parameters creates a varied set of filters that determines how far and how fast information will defuse. Each connection has a level of data permeability with information coming in assigned a data half-life and a data potential. The information only passes the filter when the data half-life and data potential are enough to overcome the data permeability.

To illustrate consider changing your relationship status in Facebook. If someone changes their status from relationship to single they don’t necessarily want the information to spread quickly through their “facebook friends” as their friends will include work colleagues and friends of friends only met once. Instead each of their connections should have different data permeability and depending on information (data half-life and data potential) it will show up in some of the connections news feeds right away, some in days, some in weeks and others never at all.

There is no single way to create and calculate data half-life, data potential and data permeability. Various developers will come up with their own methods. Some of which will work and others that won’t. Hopefully further down the track we will see a standardisation on calculating the parameters based on accepted criteria for each type of information – personal, communications, knowledge etc.

Tags: Filters, Information Overload, Privacy, Clay Shirky