Research, evaluation, analysis

The Myth of Information Technology

The term information technology implies to many people that the technology to which it refers creates information, transmits it, or stores it. The technologies we group together as information technology, however, rarely perform any of these functions. They are called information technology because they use information, not because they transmit it. A cellphone, for example, converts coded electrical signals into a facsimile of a person speaking. What the person is saying, though, may be balderdash.

Information consists of data which reduce uncertainty. The technology which we refer to as information technology is blithely unaware of whether the data it deals with reduce uncertainty or not.

The data provided by "information technology" may not be informative simply because they are irrelevant. For example, if I go looking for the box score of a particular baseball game in the newspaper, the other box scores, informative as they are, simply make it more difficult for me to find the one I'm interested in. These days, though, people use their information technology to collect large amounts of information which are of no relevance to the decision they're going to make.

Then again the data may not be informative because they are not intelligible. While Turkish newspapers are informative to Turks, they are not informative to me, because I don't speak Turkish. I deal with this problem by not subscribing to Turkish newspapers. However, people often use their information technology to collect large amounts of data which they can no more interpret than I can interpret Turkish newspapers. Turning data mining software loose on the data is not guaranteed to turn it into information, either, for reasons which are discussed in other articles on this site.

The fact is that we make information, not technology. Even those rare items of software which perform analytical functions were created by human minds. Most of what we call information technology is actually nothing more than data technology. It gives us the capacity to collect large masses of data, but it is up to us to find or define the information in it.

Few people believe everything they read in the newspaper or see in the television. Few believe that every item that appears in the newspaper or on the television is relevant to their concerns. It's time for the same discernment to be shown in dealing with databases.

We hear a lot these days about the problem of information overload. In fact, it is data we are overloaded with, not information. If we set out to collect data, we will drown in data. If we condescend, though, to use our analytical abilities, and set off in search of the data that we need, we will find that you can never be overloaded with information.

The Myth of Information Technology © 2000, John FitzGerald
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