The Power of Data in the Modern Age



For this year’s Content Issue, we really wanted to focus on content that went beyond the surface. Beyond the beautiful images or the well-written text or the links we embed into blog posts. Katharine focuses on “user experience” or “UX” - some would call her a coder, but we call her another content creator, one that focuses on content in its rawest form. 

Editor's Side Note//

The Power of Data in the Modern Age

-Katharine Hargreaves


Since the invention of computers we've watched as human knowledge has moved en masse online, turning once-limited distribution channels between established authors and their readership into exponential networks of content creators.


In that time, the presentation of information rapidly evolved to fill the new digital void. Paper and pen became word processing. As soon as the Internet was born we had blogging. Twitter created the modern newspaper and Tinder condensed our mating dance into a 200 word paragraph and Instagram handle. Yet these iterations on information distribution only scratch the surface of the internet’s true power: the limitless capacity for content. In eliminating the constraint paper enforced — namely, the flat, one-dimensional surface — humans created hypertexts. And in doing so, information became more than a transmission - it became structural. In other words, we literally wrote the Internet into existence.


Somewhere in the middle of this highly condensed timeline, the information available became over- whelming and soon grew — not surprisingly — out of control. Our creating surpassed our cognitive capacities. For instance, there are over 8 million Google+ pages alone. Like Borges’ Library of Ba- bel which contained every possible incarnation of text, we find that within the digital universe of our collective hive mind there is immense brilliance to behold — and also infinite madness. 


The human mind is the most beautiful kind of maze: a labyrinth. Metadata is one way of orga- nizing the pieces into a cohesive path; something resembling a map. Today, managing this onslaught of data requires a method of categorization that effectively navigates a non-linear network. For instance, hashtags are actually quite helpful if people actually use them appropriately, for they are an easy way to isolate and identify media keywords. The purpose of the hashtag is twofold: it effectively cuts through the noise of many people producing ridiculous amounts of trival data while providing insight into why that data is relevant.

"As humans, we have a deeply primal desire to create a story from our data."

Quantitative content is, simply put, meaningful in- formation. Yet how do we define meaningful? The short answer is: we don’t. Or rather, we all define it in different ways. Still, given large enough amounts of data, patterns emerge. Emergent information (such as trending topics on Twitter) is the shared language of the people. Not because English is what’s taught in our schools but because your mom uses “on fleek” correctly, even if she doesn’t under- stand why it originated or what it refers to.


What is interesting about quantitative content is that it has no bias. It doesn’t describe the event, it simply indicates where one is happening. Only then can we apply our insight in the act of interpretation. The danger here is that we are human. Our prejudices, our opinions, our not-so-secret feelings contain our hopes about what we want to see hap- pen. As humans, we have a deeply primal desire to create a story from our data. 


The paradigm shift currently taking place is moving the emphasis away from assets and toward access. Co-creation is about to reach fever pitch. We needa new system for productive synthesis.


In 1972 the Kingdom of Bhutan developed a new metric for understanding development in their country. Rather than basing progress on economic growth, they determined a new GNH — other- wise known as Gross National Happiness — an indicator based on environmental preservation and quality of life. In this context, each defined signifier became an opportunity for self-improvement, a way of orienting information toward the progression of humankind.


The internet-as-information-empire demonstrates the power of data in our world. We must ask ourselves: What story do we want to write? Given wings, any animal will fly. Data itself is never bad or good— but without the right framework for analysis, we won’t find the answers we seek.