In the New Testament (John 8:32) it was written that, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That certainly hasn’t been the recent experience of Julian Assange and Eric Snowden, but then discretion is not always the better part of valor where personal bravery involves risking the lives of others without their knowledge or consent.
This post is not directly about healthcare public policy, but I don’t think Pub visitors will have to search too hard to see relevant application. And if you bear with me, I try to bring it back home in the end.
In the history of our world great strategic advantages – as often manifested in terms of wealth, power and influence – have been gained through the ability to possess (and then act upon) knowledge and information that others do not. And unfortunately, a lot of public policy throughout history has been crafted and enacted for similar purposes with varying degrees of actual or perceived intent.
Now consider that historic reality in the context of what we are witnessing today with the accelerating proliferation of intentional (and unintentional) electronic content being made available to millions upon millions of individuals at the click of a mouse. Consider it too in recognition of the rogue efforts of Messrs. Assange and Snowden who have ensconced themselves in cloaks of social consciousness that to many of us look a lot more like what Andy Worhal had in mind when he coined the phrase, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Whether this emerging phenomenon is couched in the recreational context of social media, the enterprise context of online marketing and promotion or the aforementioned often invoked public policy context of transparency – the resulting abject conundrum facing modern societies and public policy makers is mind boggling. Whosoever has said they would like to know the mind of God has only to reflect upon this reality a bit to know how impossible that is to even begin imagining.
As I see it, there are three aspects to assessing this phenomenon: access, discernment and reasoning. Of these, I think access is the most difficult to assess in terms of its ability to be socially impactful. On one level, it is the great equalizer – the rallying cry of anyone who believes oppression is caused by those who withhold information for the sake of power and influence. On another level, its true value is primarily dependent upon the other two aspects.
To demonstrate, think of the game of Poker. Playing a hand of five-card stud with all cards up ensures everyone has the same information at the same time – yet anyone who has ever played knows there is much more to winning than just knowing what everyone else can see. I am again reminded of that most famous quote from Sun Tzu: “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” From a public policy perspective, the point is not to confuse promoting access with promoting equality: one does not infer the other without discernment and reason.
Discernment, in turn, cuts the value of access in half, or worse. It represents the ultimate double-edged sword of information management because it is just as easy to manufacture disinformation as it is to make available factual information. Actually, it is in fact easier to create disinformation because the burden of proof is relieved. Being able to discern one from the other, therefore – and to do so more quickly than the next person – will have tremendous strategic advantages in the future. And those who innovate the means to accelerate the process of reliable discernment stand to be very rich.
In what is a sad irony, a key role of government based on history should be the promulgation of public policy that helps effectuate discernment. But the relationship between information and power referenced above is a vicious and virtual simultaneous equation in this electronic age, and nowhere is that relationship more complex and threatening than where it involves elected officials. Just throw corruption into the mix and not only do you have the fox guarding the hen house but now also the lack of any accountability for who put the fox in charge.
And finally of course, although access and discernment may go a long way to at least conceptually equalize the playing field in providing the information needed to make decisions and judgments, that certainly does not ensure everyone of having the same ability to perform either. And this is where I think the unenlightened disconnect of the Gen X and Gen Y generations becomes truly evident. That is not a criticism, but rather a factual reality just as much as one day equals 24 hours while two days equals 48.
To my understanding, the human mind cannot be trained through study or discourse to accomplish the same functional abilities that can be gained through experience. For a wonderful treatise on this subject-matter I once again refer Pub visitors to Malcolm Glawell’s work, Blink. To state this point more plainly, data becomes information when it is organized; information becomes knowledge when it is analyzed; knowledge becomes wisdom when and only as it is allowed to age and gain from the benefit of life’s experiences.
Thus, having more data (i.e., Big Data) can advance the creation of more knowledge and information – but it cannot advance the creation of wisdom, at least not human wisdom (Watson and the like are another story). And this now brings us back full circle to healthcare policy. A lot of people have benefitted and been able to live healthier lives because of the wisdom of healthcare providers, and in particular nurses and physicians. If there were one guiding principal I would like to posit with respect to the development of policies that will impact the storage, dissemination and flow of electronic information in the future, it would be that such policy should not seek to promote the advancement of knowledge and information at the expense of wisdom.