Credibility and Calories, A Perspective on Information
Information doesn't want anything, but people do. People want things like sex and freedom and control and food and community and property.
Information isn't a kind of perfect thing, it's not an ideal, it's not even a value. It's a tool. And being a tool doesn't make information good.
Tools are generally considered good if they're useful. Hammers are used to build houses. And we all know that good tools can be used for bad things.
Information is not essentially good, though it is an essential good. That is to say, it's a commodity that has value, can be traded, and that can also lose value and degrade over time.
Thought experiment: think of the most valuable discrete item of information you know. How do you assign its particular value relative to other things you know? Is it the most valuable to you personally, to your community, or to the world system as a whole? Maybe you have to use a utilitarian frame to give it value (it's valuable because it can serve the most number of people the best); maybe you have a particular religious frame (it's valuable because when someone knows it, that person is enlightened or saved); maybe it's valuable to you because it can make you a lot of money (or make a poor country rich).
Would it be valuable to the watermelon farmers and field hands near Mize, Mississippi? The land there is woods and small farms, piney, built on loam and clay, and full of fierce folks who spend a lot of time in church. They drink, fuss and fight, try to get degrees at the community college.
If the most valuable information in the world is a simple solar hack (filling plastic bottles with whatever water you've got, leaving them in the sun for a full day to make them safe to drink, say), how valuable is it to my rural Mississippi cousins? They have plentiful well water, the Okatoma river easily at hand, and over 50 inches of rainfall per year.
If the most valuable information in the world is a prayer, you'd get them more interested -- but it better be a Baptist prayer. You see what I mean. Information is not objectively valuable.
To talk about the information needs of the developing world, we need to talk about what information is and what it is not.
Information is not:
- More valuable than gauze, iodine, or syringes.
- The key to a floating world of equality or purity or dignity.
So what is information, at its best, for the world's poor?
Here's the answer: information is food and health. Anything beyond that, until the basics get ironed out, is lagniappe. We get the information to the people so that they can sustainably clothe, feed, and heal themselves. Your IT initiative's for the burgeoning sub-Saharan mobile "market"? Let it focus on these basics. Dignity, open government, capital ventures -- these things may follow only if there's a well-laid cornerstone to build from.
People need to eat, and when your kid lacks something basic you'll do a hell of a lot that you never thought you would to get her what she needs. Nothing is more valuable than the bit of information that leads me to food to fill her belly with.
Calories build the credibility of the information technologist.
We build beyond the basics when the luxury presents itself.