Missed Information: Better Information for Building a Wealthier, More Sustainable Future

David Sarokin and Jay Schulkin

251 pages, The MIT Press, 2016

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Information is power.” This truism pervades Missed Information, an effort by two scientists to examine the role that information now plays as the raw material of modern scholarship, public policy, and institutional behavior. The scholars—David Sarokin, an environmental scientist for the US government, and Jay Schulkin, a research professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University—make this basic case convincingly. In its ever-present, digital, and networked form, data doesn’t just shape government policies and actions—it also creates its own host of controversies. Government policies about collecting, storing, and analyzing information fuel protests and political lobbying, opposing movements for openness and surveillance, and individual acts seen as both treason and heroism. The very fact that two scholars from such different fields are collaborating on this subject is evidence that digitized information has become the lingua franca of present-day affairs.

To Sarokin and Schulkin, the main downside to all this newly available information is that it creates an imbalance of power in who can access and control it. Governments and businesses have visibility into the lives of citizens and customers that is not reciprocated. The US government knows our every move, but we know what our government is doing only when a whistleblower tells us. Businesses have ever more data and ever-finer ways to sort and sift it, yet customers know next to nothing about what is being done with it.

The authors argue, however, that new digital networks also provide opportunities to recalibrate the balance of information and return some power to ordinary citizens. These negotiations are under way all around us. Our current political debates about security versus privacy, and the nature and scope of government transparency, show how the lines of control between governments and the governed are being redrawn. In health care, consumers, advocates, and public policymakers are starting to create online ratings of hospitals, doctors, and the costs of medical procedures. The traditional oneway street of corporate annual reporting is being supplemented by consumer ratings, customer feedback loops, and new information about supply chains and environmental and social factors. Sarokin and Schulkin go to great lengths to show the potential of tools such as comparison guides for patients or sustainability indices for shoppers to enable more informed user decisions.

This argument is important, but it is incomplete. The book’s title, Missed Information, refers to “information that is unintentionally (for the most part) overlooked in the decision-making process—overlooked both by those who provide information and by those who use it.” What is missing from the book, ironically, is a compelling discussion of why this “missed information” is missing. It is not happenstance that companies issue reports in the way they do. Decades of political negotiations between executives, lawyers, lobbyists, regulators, and accountants have shaped reporting regulations and norms in ways that affect both what information is presented and how it is presented. The inscrutability of Enron’s corporate filings was due to problems not with the availability of data but with people who had something to hide—and found numerous, creative ways to hide it within the data. Yes, information can be used to enlighten, but it can also be used to confuse and obscure. It is this side of the big data story that Sarokin and Schulkin rush past. And this rushing ultimately weakens their argument.

Grouping the book with others of the “Big Data Will Save Us” genre isn’t entirely fair. Sarokin and Schulkin go to great lengths to point out how much of the information we collect is never used for anything, good or bad. The book focuses on the mismatch between the types of information we can and do collect and the antiquated ways we use most of it. Still, the authors present this gap only as an opportunity for greater public access to data, overlooking its potential drawbacks. They fail to explore how the imbalance of information capture, control, and use is not only an issue of power—it is also one of rights and dignity. Privacy, as seen in Missed Information, is a transactional relationship. That it might also provide space for reflection, allow for voluntary association, or be a good in itself has no place in the authors’ argument. The same is true, actually, for information. The book argues for its value in exchange only. This perspective helps further the authors’ argument for information’s role in power relationships but denudes the work of any appreciation for simply creating, learning, teaching, or gaining understanding for its own sake.

The authors do such a good job of imagining better approaches to data reporting and analysis that they even go so far as to admit, in the epilogue, “We don’t really believe everything we have written in this book.” That’s a strange way to end. And a decidedly disappointing one. Sarokin and Schulkin have done us half a favor with this book. They’ve made it clear that digitized networked data is transforming key elements of society. But by focusing only on the transactional value of information, Missed Information is a missed opportunity to help us see the full scope of the change at hand.