Is information really the new most valuable commodity?

From tribal elders to Google, information has perhaps always been the most valued resource.

Peter Williams, Chief Technology Officer, CJC

cave painting.jpg

I keep hearing ‘information is the new oil’ – or words to that effect. I've said it myself on more than one occasion. It makes perfect sense in a world where Big Data is all the rage and where arguably the global tech giant has a mission to; ‘organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful’. However, recent unrelated research has actually now led me to question the statement’s accuracy.

Don't get me wrong, I still totally believe that information is quite possibly the most valuable commodity out there. It's just that I'm wondering if it has, in fact, always been this way.

I have a terrible memory; my wife often marvels at my capacity to forget the simplest of things, be it a five item shopping list, or just remembering to post a letter strategically placed next to my door keys. I tend to rely on technology and utilise reminders and phone lists as memory aids.

For this reason I've taken an interest in ways to improve my memory.

I've read a couple of books on the subject and listened to various TED talks and podcasts. One of the messages that seems to carry across most of this research is that we humans don't generally remember things in the abstract, since we're not good at holding unconnected bits of information in a raw state. It's widely believed that most people can hold no more than seven things in short term memory for 20-30 seconds at a time, so if we want to hold more things for longer, we have to employ techniques and make a specific effort. The more complex the information, the harder it is. So what did we do as a species before we had iPhone notes to rely on?

It turns out we got smart about information a long time ago. We employed cave paintings for data that stayed in one place (data at rest?) and we developed oral traditions for when we wanted to move and take data with us (data in transit?). These oral traditions were often in the form of songs and stories, each one encoding specific information or sets of instructions.

This encoded data was often only useful to its originating tribe due to language, lexicon, or character/symbol sets and sometimes certain information was presented in such a way that only senior tribal figures understood it (encryption?).

I'm sure there was also some evolutionary imperative at play here, where the tribes with the best memory survived. I'm not kidding about that by the way; some of this data dealt with information like which plants were poisonous, or which had medicinal properties. Sometimes they would celebrate the tribe's survival of a natural disaster like a drought or flood, but the song/story would also detail HOW they survived.

My point here is that it turns out that information has always been valuable and always will be. So next time someone tells you ‘information is the new oil’, hopefully you'll remember that it's been that way for a long time.

Peter Williams