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77th Annual Summer Conference, August 7–10, 2008

The Uncertain Path from Noise to Wisdom

BILL BUXTON, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research
Moderator: HELEN WALSH, President, CIPA

Summary by Lisa Baroldi



The path from noise to wisdom, according to Buxton is uncertain because we have collectively accepted this uncertainty. By valuing the power of technology over the power of knowledge and wisdom, we have adopted a pattern of making random decisions that appear deceivingly rational.

In order to make informed and confident decisions, we must ask what our values are and, as Buxton suggests, go beyond the notion of a culture of knowledge to explore how we can reach a higher culture of wisdom. The path from noise or homogenous data to informed decision-making and policy-making rooted in diversity and experience is one that we don’t have to journey on ambiguously because we are politically and educationally enfranchised to make informed decisions. We have the power to shape our culture, rather than letting technology do it for us.

There are two premises to consider when exploring how we perceive the relationship between information and economics. First, there is no information revolution. Second, if we agree to use the term revolution, then we must understand that our “revolution” is unlike the print and scientific revolutions.

Information is only information if it informs and is the basis of informed decision- making. Where are these great, informed decisions? Decision-making, contrary to popular belief, is not inherently rational. Decision-making is a process that relies upon informed discussion and deliberation. A global communications network, no matter how advanced and efficient, does not mean that people will start having informed conversations. This “fields of dreams” theory makes Marshall McLuhan is the Kevin Costnar of communications. If you build it, they won’t come. Communications networks and tools require literacy and a deep understanding of the cultural, political and economic implications of their introduction into society if they are to lead to an information revolution.

What we are experiencing is, not an information revolution, but a data explosion. The challenge we pose is how to render that data useful. There is potential and we have the power to realize this potential. Unlike previous revolutions, notably the print and scientific revolutions, we are politically and educationally enfranchised to impact how technology shapes our culture. We have to ask ourselves: What are our values? What is meaningful policy-making? What kind of a legacy do we want to leave? We have to understand the “wetware”, our own brains and how our brains interact, not the hardware or software. Technology is a means to an end.

Buxton adheres to Kranzberg’s first law that technology is not good or bad, but neutral. The reality is that when we introduce a paper plate into a work environment or a blackboard into a school we change that environment. It is our responsibility to make these technologies change the environment or the human interactions that they affect, air on the side of the good. Technology is neither good nor bad, it is what we make of it, and this verity ought to be considered in all design.

Technology, according to Kranzburg’s second law, is “the mother of necessity”. Technology generates new needs, jobs, policy, etc. It is, as Buxton points out, the “job of generation N to clean up the mistakes of generation N-1”. The key to this clean up is to grasp the interplay between the social, political, and cultural components surrounding the introduction and use of new technology.

The 1857 Sepoy Mutiny India is a glaring example of an instance when the importance of this interplay was overlooked. The new Enfield rifle was a vast improvement over previous models; however, the grease used to load the guns consisted of booth pork and beef fat. Considering the troops were both Hindu and Muslim the guns were a wonderful new technology that was religiously inappropriate and rightly prompted outrage. The failure of this technology was the lack of understating about its cultural, social, and political ramifications.

Buxton acknowledges that a multi-faceted approach to technology is difficult to achieve when the data we need is “lost in the noise”. He invites each member of the audience to repeatedly shout out any number. The exercise demonstrates how a right answer to a question can be lost if everyone has an equal voice and there is no structure. Who cares if you have a voice, if there is no structure, if your voice can’t be heard in the chatter of social networks and blogs. We need structure for true democracy. We need a network, not a communications network, but a heterogeneous social network or network of people with varied knowledge. An individual is only as knowledgeable as his social network. Knowledge and wisdom is not in our heads; it is embedded in this network and it is diverse. If we want a wisdom culture, then we have to cultivate an ecosystem conducive to such a culture.

Diversity in media and data is crucial for informed decision-making. When we see the world through a computer screen, data is homogenized and neutral. This has implications for our experience and can negatively affect our motivation to engage in society in a meaningful way. It is an individual’s responsibility to figure out how to engage in experience, to get his hands dirty. Experience is the key to rational, logical decision making and smart design.

Costs-benefits analysis is important in decision-making, but our biggest mistake culturally is that we only consider the dollar when assessing transaction costs. Important decision-making isn’t about the money. If we consider monetary currency only, then we might not realize what we are giving up by ignoring social, political, and cultural costs and benefits. Private funding for universities, for instance, is a decision that we have made because we don’t want to support a national trust of experts who are supposed to be the watchdogs of the public good. Why does everyone want everything to be free? The cost of free information is a loss of expertise intended to support the public good. There are fewer journalists and the information that many provide has diminished. It is inevitable that when the price of a product is zero the cost to produce the product will also be zero. We shouldn’t be surprised to end up with Fox News when we substitute lost revenue through advertising.

Bill warns not to rely on people who have expertise and experience in things and not in people. These things, these technologies, are by their essence human anyway. If we don’t turn our assessment of technologies from descriptive to proscriptive, then how can we have informed conversations? Bill compares a book review to a technology review to the amusement of the audience. Book reviews are written with the context of the book in mind, with reference to ethics and values, human nature and society, and with attention to thought. Technical reviews, on the other hand, merely describe the physical and performance attributes of the technology in question. Isn’t the technology having the same or more influence on our behavior than the cultural industries? Yet, we don’t treat it that way. We don’t treat technology as something that shapes our culture.

There needs to be an ongoing discourse about technology, its impact, and culture in general because we can change our culture and values if we discuss them in an informed manner. As a group we have made a conscious decision to change our values. We made a concerted effort to use gender-neutral language. Similarly, Paris and Amsterdam banned smoking in public places. Paris and Amsterdam! There is ample proof that we can change our values, and in effect, our culture. If you want to make change, however, don’t study computers; study how we shift culture. You can change a society. You can change a culture to become wise. That is certain.


Several thoughtful questions followed Bill Buxton’s address. Below are summaries of sample questions and answers.

1. What role does creativity play in knowledge and the challenges that we face politically, culturally, socially?

Buxton describes some simple research that he conducted for a committee on the arts one year. He researched all Canadian Noble Prize winners and discovered that virtually all of them had professional competence in one of the creative arts. Banting, Mike Pearson, and others excelled at the very creative arts that were being cut from the Ontario school system. Buxton emphasizes that pushing on the three R’s is not how you get to have great science; the arts matter. Steve Cook, for example, was a computer programmer and a violinist. Buxton’s own music degree was the best training for him as a computer scientist. One can look to Ireland to have more evidence of the correlation between arts and other professions. More creative arts, means more creative people, people who are more rounded, have broader experience, and thus, can make better decisions.

2. Can you extrapolate on your statement that we must shift from a descriptive to a prospective approach when assessing human technologies?

Bill responds that we are designing our society anyhow. We’re just doing it without thought. When we introduce new technologies we’re doing it by accident and not design. Policies, services, etc are all technologies. Design is unfortunately random because we don’t know causal relationships between the political, social, economic, and cultural costs and benefits. Design should be from principals and professionalism. We’re designing a culture anyhow, so we might as well do it professionally.

3. Should people be prepared to pay more money to get better quality of media, culture, or content, more information, or data?

We decide if we would rather not pay for Margaret Atwood’s work, then there will likely be no Margaret Atwood. If we do want a Margaret Atwood, then we have to decide how she gets paid. We need just as much creativity in the business model and we invest in the product itself. Buxton does not advocate that taxpayers pay more, but that they understand the consequence of their decisions.

4. How do you suggest that we convince people to invest in social bottom line?

Buxton suggests that throughout the conference we make some piles. One will be for those technologies that have social benefits, those that have economic benefits, and those that have both. He believes that both are always present. We have to understand the cases first to bring about a culture where the triple bottom line – business, technology, and design (social and cultural implications) – is followed.

5. How do people make a living? What is the business model?

Buxton is clear that the business model is product specific or service specific. Our real values only shine through when times are bad. Try to find systems that we live with even when times are bad. Not saying how you pay writers, esp. journalists, they are our eyes and ears as citizens.