Dog-walk-triggered obnoxious post

Whilst walking my dog tonight – he is a Spoodle, really not very clever but he is very lovely – I started thinking about freedom from information. A concept that has been bugging me ever since the UK government introduced Freedom of Information (FOI) – ironically my tea is currently squatting on an FOI mat thing.

I think that this is where my last post on bills to pay and bills paid, i.e. simplicity, sprang from in the first place.

There is too much information available now, it is creating confusion and chaos.

On said dog walk, I came over all pretentious and wondered what Plato would have said about information – it was his thing really. When I got home I Googled it and got this (amongst other things):

The philosophy of Plato is marked by the usage of dialectic, a method of discussion involving ever more profound insights into the nature of reality, and by cognitive optimism, a belief in the capacity of the human mind to attain the truth and to use this truth for the rational and virtuous ordering of human affairs. Plato believes that conflicting interests of different parts of society can be harmonized. The best, rational and righteous, political order, which he proposes, leads to a harmonious unity of society and allows each of its parts to flourish, but not at the expense of others. (Blatantly copy and pasted from here)

Argh!! The complete opposite of what I had hoped for. He thought that this dialogue would create harmony and unity.

Dare I disagree?

18 responses

  1. I’m being contentious perhaps, but I’m missing the relevance of the quote to information. Plato’s views on ‘information’ might be worth a post at There are far more knowledgeable people than me on the forum who could help.

    I don’t think he held information in particularly high regard. It’s lower than knowledge and lower still from understanding and truth. Dialectic was (and is) a process of getting to truth.

    As for FOI: he revered freedom, so why not freedom to investigate information? However, back to your question about FOI causing confusion – I agree. Information, can be partial, incomplete, or untruthful. With freedom to that information comes responsibility.
    When invoking FOI one also has to ask the right questions – Garbage in;garbage out
    The responsibility is to keep enquiring of and from that information and to discover the truth for yourself. It is very easy for us to take and refer to information at face value and not test it out..

  2. I’m not sure what else you want me to say…..

    Precis’ing and going one further step, which might be of interest to you…..

    If we want freedom of information then we have to be trustworthy and responsible with it. I’m not sure yet how this can be achieved in the Social Networking world.

    Anyone can blog and then cite anything, interpret / distort it without much consequence. However they can’t make people read it, I suppose.

    So maybe a blogger does have a reputation to uphold and an audience to retain.

    Someone else please……. 😉

  3. I’ve reread your original post and understand it better now. ‘Freedom from information’ – really? So no info from O2, in the case of your phone – in which case, join Orange and live in bliss!!

    Most of my clients aspire to give their customers clear, concise, appropriate and correct information when they want it. Simple, but not easy to enact.

    Most citizens, according to my understanding of the politicians, want ‘choices’, ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’, freedom to delve.

    What can end up getting purveyed is old policy statements, no choice, no understanding of me, factoids taken as axioms, lies damn lies and stats, sound bites rather than reasoned argument, leading to lack of trust, frustration and apathy.

  4. Forgive me as I type while I think 🙂

    Information is like an inverted Maslow’s pyramid (hey, if you can drag Plato into this then I can certainly reference Maslow).

    Maslow’s pyramid has our immediate needs at the base – food, water etc rising through various stages to the “glorious” pinnacle of self-actualisation. The idea being that in life we strive to maximise our time at the top of the pyramid, dipping down the pyramid only when forced to – time for toast!

    The problem is that information priorities are the opposite to this nice Cheopsian edifice, knowing that I need water is more important than reading the feedback forms from the last presentation I gave, paying the taxman more important than buying those tickets for Stars of the Lid at St Giles-in-the-Fields. So we cannot simply glide across the surface of the information which comes at us. Add to that the ever increasing volumes of information which I spent this morning piling into the recycling and we have a recipe for trouble.

    So how do we ensure that the important things are not overlooked? As you know I am a big fan of tools like tag clouds and news feeds as a way of dealing with the torrent but tools are not a substitute for good writing, meaning and a proper information architecture.

  5. Maslow – that takes me back.

    Mark seems to be talking about info overload and prioritising what we give our finite attention time to. I use RACI quite a bit in looking at roles in the organisation – accountable, responsible, consulted and informed. Maybe this works for information as well as operational performance data? If I’m ultimately accountable then I just need to know about highlights and things that are going wrong and I’m likely to get my arse kicked for. Those with direct responsibility for getting stuff done need the detail. Those consulted just need the relevant information for the bit thery are being consulted on, and those with a purpose for being informed only need the absolutely relevant stuff. In my work I often find there’s too many people trying to take responsibility and that causes such blamemongery and inefficiency. I’m also presented with stuff (cc’ed) for which I’m unclear why I’ve got it. What’s the moral – be clear about only taking responsibility for things where you have time to take responsibility????

    I was going on about information being misused and misrepresented which is a problem for society as it is so readily available – for obfuscation or genuine understanding.

  6. I’m with Jeremy to some extent.

    But prefer a deductive reasoning: information is of value if its absence causes harm.

    If that’s not the case, it may still result in value, but requires an awful lot processing (frequently) to demonstrate this.

    And never forget the Pugwash effect…

  7. Herein lies the rub… Plato and Maslow could have a great debate – as could we.

    The closest person I can think of to these philosophers is Ben Hammersley – whom I adore. He said to me once (about social media) why do I need an application to tell me who my friends are and what they are up to? I have a perfectly developed frontal lobe that has been honed over many centuries of evolution to enable me to prioritise, evaluate and survive. (Ben did not say it as beautifully as I have, but this is what he meant).

    He benefits from having tested and evaluated the media that we are currently exploring way before we got our mits on it, and he has turned his back on the lot. Hmmm…

    1. annoying
    2. why?

    I understand the freedom from online relationships – and the gift of time that this might give you. Yet the value of my online relationships outweighs the time investment, and I would suffer without this support.

    I am so tempted to digress here into the online/offline personality/behaviour but I will try to stay with the one subject.

    What we are talking about is freedom from information that is inappropriate or unnecessary in an environment where information overload is not only possible, in some cases it seems to be compulsory.

    Jeremy challenges me that my quest for freedom from information could mean that I would receive nothing from O2.

    I disagree. All I wanted was for O2 to sort out my phone, I don’t need or want to know why or how we got into this situation in the first place. My life is time-poor, a telephone call that I am required to take from someone whom I do not know is pointless. I struggle to talk to my mates.

    Ideally, I should be able to lodge the complaint, and assuming it is valid, everything should magically happen to solve my problem without me having to invest any more time.

    This is not reality, and Jeremy you have demonstrated why. You have listed what customers want – I recognise this list from many hours of ‘customer observation’ when they are interrogated for their list of requirements in laboratory circumstances.

    More often than not people will say what they need to say to please and ‘pass the test’. We should take far more notice of the frustration of those using any service we provide and take the time to comment on it – were I to develop or support anything new now, I would not bother with paying for expensive customer research – I would just go back to the people who utilise the service, and find out what they would do to make it better.

    Seems simple? It is, and it is a hell of a lot cheaper than measuring ‘customer insight’.

    We have a frontal lobe – let’s use it.

  8. Maslow and Plato sitting in a cave, T-H-I-N-K-I-N-G

    So like the bad scientist I was trained to be, the problems are:

    1. Too much information, eating our lives and swamping the important – viz. Gresham’s Law
    2. People deliberately implementing poor information processes as a way of preserving power relationships and/or cutting costs/treating customers like dirt.
    3. A lack of clear drivers to force people to do something about this.

  9. Is this where intermediaries and other means of filtering the information come in? If it’s possible to turn off the computer, phone etc. then presumably there are reasons why people choose to accept the flow of information. Similarly, they probably gravitate to information sources with a higher signal-to-noise ratio, so over time an opposing trend will become more apparent – information sources that provide useful information in manageable quantities will win out over ones that deluge their users with uninteresting content.

  10. Where we have choices then we can be selective, er tautologous but you know ehat I mean.

    The problem is that for many channels we have little choice. They are either mediated or perhaps deliberately made difficult –

    Number 3 is about the fact that the people in organizations who have the mandate to do something about information overload often duck the issue because they can employ a PA so why should they care if their organization is drowning in information, after all worst case scenario they can always offshore 🙂

  11. An interesting thread, but I don’t think I am overloaded with information. The frontal lobe deals with it.

    Whether the information my frontal lobe is presenting to me is truthful, is another matter, and this is what particularly interests me.

  12. Mark, I completely understand and agree – in our world you are spot on (as in public sector). Jeremy, knowing you as I do I understand the search for truth – but I am specifically wanting to try to pre-empt the inevitable strike back against information overload through the wealth of social media channels. Understand how this could be mitigated by someone like me who should be able to sift this information in the most appropriate delivery form.

    There is a very interesting line here that should centre around customer behaviour on- and off-line – where online personalities can differ greatly from offline.

    Traditional customer research is based around Human Computer Interaction (HCI), but I believe that as we increasingly integrate online comms into our offline lives this needs to be re-addressed.

    Steve Krug wrote a brilliant book – Don’t make me think which seems most appropriate here.

  13. Can I chuck my Third Sector thoughts in?
    Maybe random and unconnected but had to get off my chest!

    Picking up a point you make Emma. I had a similar conversation with David Wilcox last year as we tried to keep up with each others threads on Really Important Topics being posted as comments on each others blogs , Facebook, Twitter, Forums, Real Websites etc etc. There were (and still are) just too many places to check for information and try to keep up to date …. you end up spending late nights and weekends (don’t I know!) just catching up on reading blog threads. Emma I agree – Freedom FROM Infoirmation is very valid .

    Looking at quality of that information… A few years ago a wise person said to me when I began work in this Sector. “People only trust information and signposting that is one level removed from them”. That is why I will ask a friend about what products I buy, or why a small charity relies on recommendations from its peers about the ICT support it uses. A lot of citizens just won’t trust national (ICT Hub?) or government websites because of a fear of a hidden agenda or a feeling “they can’t possibly understand my situation”..

    1, The above is why I frequently run into difficulties convincing small charities and support groups, older peoples projects etc. that “Social Media” is a good thing. These people struggle with computers and the Internet per se so why should they bother with jumping into the fast flowing river!

    2, There is still a deepening and widening Broadband access gap. More information is being pushed faster down the tubes which some people simply can’t access or that is prohibitively expensive. Also people I know on PAYG phone packages just cannot afford to play in the river we are in with constant Tweets and 3g access on demand.

    What am I saying?
    Information should glow with quality, making it useful and relevant. I, and the groups I work with don’t have spare time to sift. I value trusted sources of information and support…. if they are geographically local (or of my peer group) it scores an extra point as we are speaking the same language. We must always respect those who don’t / can’t play our game and not exclude them from information relevant to them.

    Phew …. will post my Twitter thoughts on your next post.

  14. I completely agree, Paul. You will never catch me arguing with the value of expertly written content. The rest of your prose seems to point back to the value of exhaustive research on what people need to know and how they want to get that information, including on and offline formats of course.

    The clever thing to do would be to find out a way to get this information without sitting down a cross-section of your ‘identified audience’/prey and interrogate them, with clients observing through a two way mirror. Sounds vaguely pervy? It is, and is not the best way to get a truthful view, but it is a way.

    Freedom from information is required – as you point out – the other way around, customers/stakeholders back to the business… hmm

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