Data is the raw material that consumable information is built from, but it is impossible to definitively say what data is useful and what should be left on the cutting room floor. Even the data created by our pursuit of data, the meta-data, is valuable. The only certain thing about data is that we are collecting it faster than we can store it, and at rates that are unsustainable with our current capacity for power generation. Meanwhile, those best able to make sense of the data deluge, and the data exhaust, are giving rise to a new economy of information: from phone apps that help drivers avoid red lights, to cloud computing companies that help watchdog groups keep a tally of a politician’s successes and failures. In this brave new world, nothing is so important as pristine data sets, descriptions of the world left unspoiled by human interests. The Economist gives fourteen pages to these issues in a special report from its February 27th, 2010 edition, titled Data Data Everywhere.
One can interpret the argument for the sanctity of uncensored data in today’s global economy as either a dismissal or a reaffirmation of a dominant, 21st century Chinese economy. How one interprets it depends on a couple of things.
First, on whether or not one believes that the economy of information will become the dominant economic engine of the next one hundred years. Second, on one’s interpretation of how China’s leaders – representatives of a government that currently guards its power and legitimacy with a powerful censorship apparatus – will react to a world in which the strength of nations will be most closely related to the abilities of their institutions and entrepreneurs to freely access and analyze data. Will China’s centralized power be a boon or a drawback? Will China’s next generation of Politburo members draw back the curtain or fly blind?
In theory, democracies are built upon the principles of open government, transparency rules, and a particularly egalitarian leadership ethic. Gathering and profiting from information in a country where the tradition of open information is strong should, in theory, be miles easier than in a country which treats all information as a potential threat to the State. In theory, America and it’s democratic allies have an insurmountable lead, and the race for 21st century economic supremacy is theirs to lose.
Personally, selfishly, I find myself wishing that theory holds, and America, democracy, freedom all win out as a result. The thought of democracy creating a lasting economic advantage simply because of the principles it’s based upon plays out in my mind through a dark silhouette of Uncle Sam with a neon blue thought bubble floating above his head. “Citizen, everything you’ve ever learned about democratic ideals in your Texas School Board approved social studies classes is true!”, it reads. The neon glare shines like a beacon of hope amidst a much darker cesspool of thoughts about the economic future of the democratic world: a cesspool populated with article clippings, hazy audio tracks, and hash-tagged tweets touting the unavoidable subservience of democratic economies to a streamlined, has-the-ability-to-make-quick-decisions China.
But, I am also keenly aware of how impossible it is to believe that ultimate transparency and equality will give every business venture from the democratic world a boost of economic nitrous, and somehow leave centrally controlled nations, or those where state-sponsored censorship is a way of life, without any discernible advantages. The ability to quickly organize people into massive work units has to count for something in the race to collect and synthesize information, right? Furthermore, wouldn’t China’s immense black market experience with information piracy and computer hacking prove especially valuable in a global economy that’s information dependent? And, if the goal of the information economy is to learn how to interpret information, shouldn’t Chinese people have a leg up relative to the rest of the world considering that China’s languages are better suited to expressing ideas between the lines than on them?
Conversely, won’t an information based economy also magnify democracy’s disadvantages? Sarah Palin is building a media empire based on her ability to trump up the benefits of remaining blissfully uninformed. In a country where Sarah Palin is a billionaire, unlimited transparency and freedom of information doesn’t amount to much. Europe, too, has its Palin equivalents, and the rise of these airhead pundits is perhaps the best testament to the democratic world’s inability to harness the power of a data set.
There are certainly more questions to be answered and they certainly won’t be answered by any single person, or, for that matter, any single generation. I’ve barely scratched the surface. But, what I have done is given some context, and it is my hope that this is enough to spark a strong china/divide discussion.
Will the information economy topple China’s Great Firewall?
Will Chinese central control prove to be a blessing, and somehow give China a lasting advantage in the developing information economy of the 21st century?
Thank you goes out to Elizabeth Thomsen for making her wonderful flickr photos available to the public.