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Data Inflation

Simon Pitt | Internet | Tuesday 28th April 2009

It's become rather a cliche to say that we've been living in the "information age" (apparently, according to those who "know" we're now in a "knowledge-economy"). Actually, I'm going to go out on a limb here. I'm going to reject these phrases out of hand (despite all the "evidence" backing them up and "research" and all that stuff) and say that the internet class is in a "Data Age". It actually doesn't matter what the data is about, what matters is how much of it you have. You can't really do much with data, you just have to horde it and hope you have more than everyone else. In that sense, it's pretty much like gold.

I wonder if this is a necessary part of the internet - that because of its size and scope, it renders everything on it effectively worthless. And whether this is also why the Internet takes such a mean attitude towards attempts to make money.

The Internet is obsessed with one thing: the internet. And, more specifically, with charting and documenting itself. The Internet software phenomenon of "changelogs" is an example of documentation taken to Stupid Land. Don't get me wrong, the charting of one's actions is all very well, but the extent to which it is taken, and the way that changelogs of even outdated versions of software seem to be stored on the Internet forever is ridiculous. Take the awesome ImgBurn Version Changelog. And by awesome I mean stupidly long. It's over 2000 words long. 2000 words of minor updates and slight alterations. The thing is, I do actually use and like ImgBurn. And, to be honest wtih you, I love the fact that everything is archived and documented and stored for ever. But, at the same time, I find something somewhat strange about it. It's somewhat self agrandizing, and I have to wonder if all this data is devaluing the value of information.

Wikipedia takes this a step further, archiving every single edit of any page ever page. This means that every time someone randomly slips a swear word into an article it is archived for posterity. Just think how much junk data there must be on their servers. The current version of Wikipedia must represent way less than 1% of what they hold. There is so much data stored that you'd need to draw a graph in about fifteen dimensions, undermining all known rules of physics, just in order to display it all.

While, on the one hand, changelogs may simply be a product of someone being interested in what they are actually doing, I suspect that they go further than that. There is no reason to actually create one - indeed, I suspect they are often created because "that is what is done". After all, if you've just spent fifteen hours fixing a bug in your programme the last thing you're going to want to do is write it up in a plain text notepad file. Once again, it seems to me to be the internet's self-reflexive obsession with itself. It's an unspoken rule that the Internet has written for itself.

There is an argument that they are useful for tracking errors and noting which ones are fixed and for helping users determine which version of software to go for, and I'm sure that's true, and, indeed, I'm not going to argue that they're a bad thing. Rather, I think they're an interesting side effect of the Internet. The fact is that they are an Internet only phenomenon. I mean, people will happily spend hundreds or even thousands of pounds on new cars, TVs etc, without receiving or expecting a detailed log of exactly what's different or better about this model as opposed to the £200 cheaper one. Yet for some reason, we're expected to read through thousand word long changelogs before exerting ourselves by pressing one mouse button.

This documentation seems to me anyway, to be symptomatic of Internet's obsession with charting itself - creating projects like the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine (yes, that is what it's called), which, incidentally, is created by the same people who run Alexa, the self-styled "web information company" which tracks the most commonly visited sites on the internet I mean, look at this - it tells you what the 37th most popular site in El Salvador is (incidentally, it's - a "social networking tool" whatever that means anymore).

Now, it is amazing to be able to go back to what any website looked at on any given day, and this does provide the user with a phenomenal number of possibilities. However, I put it to you that we're suffering from data hyperinflation. With so much data being available, the value of a single piece of information is reduced to almost nothing. This is why spam companies sell millions of emails for less than the cost of a fart. With the possibility of being able to find out anything, anything you do pick out seems almost random. My suggestion here is that with the internet being so large, it reduces the ability to create anything significant, other than something like Google or Wikipedia or YouTube; sites that manage large quantities of information. The Internet has created a situation where the only thing worth anything is a way of managing large quantities of data, and that brings us, rather neatly, back to my starting point, of suggesting that the Internet is a data economy.



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