Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Keeping an Eye Open At All Times

How To Keep an Eye Open Regardless of Media Channel(s):

Part I

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In my previous post, I spoke about Content Discovery and The Enterprise, specifically about the case of dealing with flows of information external to the company, of monitoring such flows for specific signals or "intelligence". I spoke of the Gathering phase. I wanted to make a short addendum of sorts. I thought it would be interesting to note that when we talk about content "external" to the company, we are not constrained to mean only online "web content". The sources of information can be of many kinds. Any medium is as good a starting-point as another. You could do the same thing you do with web content but with newspapers, magazines, the evening news if you wanted. That's why I'm writing this short addendum, to make a few important things clear.

I always liked the way Marshall McLuhan made it sound as though everything was a "medium". All technologies were treated as media, as extensions of our body, mind, or spirit. At any rate, what the idea that most if not all things around us, our "useful objects" we use in "useful space", etc., are media, then it becomes important to "Keep an Eye Open at All Times" (i.e. "Regardless of Media Channel(s)"). But how do I do this? how does my company "Keep an Eye Open at All Times"?

There is a pretty big problem inherent to information seeking behavior in humans, I believe. You kind of have to know what you're looking for before you go looking for it. In other words, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. You want to stake out the space of the known unknowns at first, keeping in mind however the larger "horizon of findability", the "Big Picture".

In media and in events surrounding us, we are looking for certain signals. We try to find emerging trends, early indicators, but waning trends too. (Note: One cannot predict the future. While one is looking for "insights" or "intelligence" to aid in making optimal decisions within an organization, Content Discovery is never soothsaying.) The point is that in tracking and monitoring, we are "looking". Effectively, that is the meaning of "theory", the Greek "theoria", corresponding to the Latin "contemplatio", meaning "looking at", "gazing at", "being aware of". That is the kind of "looking" that we are doing when we speak of gathering intelligence. (And there are problems inherent in this, as we shall see. Problems that are not insurmoutable.)

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In the last post we spoke about social media intelligence. What I have to share today is that there are countless cases, types oF "intelligences". Social media intelligence is an example of intelligence dealing with information external to the company, in an information ecology we call "social media", a kind of shared "Third Place". The point is that we are not limited to one media channel; we can explore them all, internal and external. Anything that exists can be the object of study or "theoria", object of "intelligence". As I have said, however, there are problems inherent in intelligence(s). One problem is a focus problem, a problem Eli Pariser dubbed "The Filter Bubble". Another name for it might be the "Relevance Paradox". It is a case of the difficulties humans have dealing with uncertainties and unknowns, of dealing with information flows in general.

You see, the Gathering or Collection phase is all-important in any Discovery process. What you gather or collect is going to influence the results that you come up with when you analyze, synthesize, or process the gathered materials. Anything which skews or potential skews the decision process in selecting and choosing Content, in the work of Discovery, will influence the end-result. A relevance paradox occurs when one thinks he has obtained all information relevant to a decision-making process but is unaware of the existence of additional relevant information, its relevance not being apparent until he first has that information. That is why it is extremely important for an Organization, Company, or Corporation to also do an "internal content audit", to know what Data/Information/Knowledge one has to begin with. Only when one knows the exact state of one's Knowledge, we'll call it, can one know what new information one might need, i.e. through auxiliary information channels, gathering background knowledge.

When we speak of Discovery, then, it is important to consider what is our "information need", similar to what our "search intent" would be in information seeking behavior using an information retrieval system. What Eli Pariser calls "The Filter Bubble" is an important concept to remember in "Keeping an Eye Open": i.e. one must be wary of one's own biases. (See: Systemic Bias).

Any pre-existing bias in the selection process, whether it's the selection of the very object of study, or the selection of media channels to track and monitor, or what to look at in general to find insights, etc., it will skew the end-result. This means that in the end, a bias will skew the decision-making process in the corporation, the goal of Content Discovery in this case being to find insights to aid in making optimal decisions, i.e. information as decision aid.

Let there be an information space. Let there be an individual interested in gaining access to a knowledge resource. He or she follow paths, tracking "information scents", orienting and re-orienting oneself constantly in the information ecology. When one observes the very act of information seeking, and one knows the limitations of the apparatus itself of human intelligence, human judgment, sense perception, etc., one finishes by recognizing that there will inherently always be an information filtering process.

If we look at individuals, their senses and rational minds, there are fundamental limitations, one of which is it is impossible to "record" everything. There will be data loss, period, point final. It makes sense, though. We need filters. The first step in the data collection phase will essentially be to go on a data collecting "binge", and you will require the implementation of primary filters. It will help guide you through the Discovery process. That information which IS auxiliary will already be filtered by who owns the media/media channel, as well as who pays for it (advertising), etc.. (See: Herman and Chomsky's five filters, in The Propaganda Model.)

Your primary filter could be for auxiliary information, available content and its coverage, and your primary goal, to discern the shape and size of the newshole, as though it were an archaeological context you were treating/studying. Your object of study then is this context. You observe, monitor that context, noticing changes, tracking movements in the context(s), materials. You are essentially looking at physical signals and physical changes, changes in communications in this case, as content.

Step One (of data collecting binge): Scout out the terrain/territory. Define / decide on search intent (information need), i.e. Define Focus. Establish search and filter parameters. Examine ambient field, navigate ambient information space, digital space, media ecology, newshole, etc. Locate horizon of findability, of knowability, what is knowable, findable. Actively engage in exploratory search behavior, establishing peripheral awareness as you browse through the contents of the networked information ecology. End-goal: Situational Awareness/Intelligence.

Part II

Content Discovery begins with a Collection phase. We have explored methods and tools. The rest merely involves an optimization process: You iterate and optimize the overall process, gaining Direction, orienting and re-orienting, attempt to achieve specific goals, exploring the limits of the auxiliary channel(s), i.e. communication channels in this case. To counteract Information Overload problems, to reduce information noise or "contain" information pollution, you refine the filters, study your own processes in real-time, attempting after each iteration to "loosen" your own structural limitations, i.e. systemic biases. We want to shed as many biases as possible.

And so you have a battery of tools, search tools, content discovery tools, but you must actively and retroactively refine and reformulate search terms, etc. You must sharpen the Focus, i.e. sharpen the Filters too. In essence, the entire project is a refining process, an intelligence refinery whereby the tools themselves, be they psychological/rational, technical, or methodological, need to be constantly kept sharp.

As stated, problems exist which are inherent to the Discovery Enterprise itself:

  • The problem/limitations of what is knowable and findable (problem of visibility/invisibility in phenomenological ontology, the problem of credible messages vs. incredible messages in signalling games, etc., i.e. "trusted" sources, "authority".)
  • The problems inherent in the decision making process in Organizations, human dynamics of priority queuing processes, the problem of optimal decision making under extreme uncertainty, with information handicap or asymmetry, incomplete knowledge, etc.
  • The problem of native constraints of/on the imagination (the human quest for truth, meaning, beauty, purpose, sense, etc. i.e. biases in human judgment, aesthetic judgments, judgments of taste, value judgments, as exemplified by the search for what I care called "beautiful signals", signals which signal "truth and beauty".)
  • There seems to be a problem intrinsic to the enterprise of knowledge management, mainly in structuring or organizing knowledge. It can be called an urn problem, for it is a problem in stochastic urn processes which characterize numerous forms of knowledge or intelligence "refinement". In essence, you are dealing with "urns and balls", with containers and items you put in said containers. Preferential attachment processes have been known to occur here, which can explain why we encounter such things as Filter Bubbles and systemic biases such as the Relevance Paradox or Unknown Unknowns. (Semantic or ontological errors can occur as well, such as the Category Mistake / Category Error.)
The Gathering phase, though, is only the first step. Next we will look at the Processing phase, i.e. what you do with the data you have collected. We have tried to eliminate biases, errors or fallacies of logic, in documenting the space, as we transcribed the "footprint of the knowable". We have harvested data, recording facets of the news ecology, delimiting the "frontier" of its full "extension".

In the Processing phase, we will see how things get awfully "ontological", where we begin to think about classes or categories of existing things, of which "content" is an example. We will "refine" our "collection" to isolate "key quotes", quotes that are indicative of the general "whole", the content that we have gathered essentially constituting the "sample" we will work with in the Analysis/Synthesis phase.

The point of this article, though, was merely to point out that one should be extremely attentive when engaging in Content Discovery. Content exists in many forms, in many channels. Media of all shapes and sizes abound. We are essentially always immersed in an immense field of information. It is therefore to our advantage to "Keep an Eye Open at All Times, Regardless of Media Channel(s)".

This means that we must be ever careful. The auxiliary information corporations are currently looking for might not be the most pertinent or relevant in helping them make the best decisions. Knowledge is funny that way. You don't really know what you are looking for, at the outset. You know one thing, you are looking for Signals. To find them, these "golden nuggets of truth", these "beautiful signals", signals which excite your senses, which enlighten and edify, which strengthen convictions and help elucidate problems and elaborate solutions, to find them you need to "separate the wheat from the chaff", as the idiom goes. This entails an information filtering process.

It is to our advantage therefore to develop "robust" methods, "elastic" methods that we can alter and refine over time, adapting to the changing networked information /media ecology in real-time. We want to fail quickly, and iterate, learning from our mistakes, our "design failures". Our end-goal is Resilience, Fitness, Soundness, of reasonings and methodologies. This entails finding ways to innoculate ourselves against our own systemic biases, thereby avoiding Filter Bubbles and Filter Failure, trying to limit the influence of our own aesthetic judgments or judgments of taste, our value judgments too, which tend to adversely create constraints on the will and the imagination, limiting the extent of the "possible", because beauty, truth, and meaning are powerful filters.. Beauty mesmerizes, locks us in a state of awe and stupefaction. Beauty and Truth can cloud the senses. They are to be watched closely.

Keeping an Eye Open at All Times means observing one's own information seeking behaviors, to better understand the field of one's own behavioral ecology, such as identifying social information or collaborative information seeking behaviors, ways that we naturally interact with information flows. The purity of your methods will help you the most in the long-run. If you actively seek to limit the extent of your own biases, you will find that the "sample" you collect is more representative. Your stance towards the information space must be indirect, impersonal, one of distance and disinterestedness. Or else your own "gluttony" or "covetousness" will cloud your senses, skewing the data in favor of some figment of your imagination, some nonexistent shadow you are chasing. This is the definition of aegri somnia, a sick man's dreams. You are seeking signals, market signals, physical signals, credible signs. But you must fight against your own faculties of judgment, for human judgment, while it is an expert in categorizing and organizing knowledge, has a nasty habit of creating beautiful proofs and beautiful answers, in the face of uncertainty, when there is a void of sense, man can actually create them. You must erase yourself as much as possible from the process, so that your own presence does not influence the footprint of the known and knowable. This lesson is of utmost importance in the work of intelligence analysis, of which we will speak about at length in future articles.

Remember, you are wayfinding, not trying to erect a Tower of Babel. A measure of Skepticism, Doubt, and Restraint is in order, as well as methodological rigor.

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