The information bubble

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about filter bubbles lately, but not information bubbles.

Information bubbles exist when people inside an institution have access to information that’s very different from the information available from the outside. Information bubbles cause people within them to make decisions differently than those outside, and they frequently cause the institutions to be popularly misunderstood.

A common feature of information bubbles is that people within the affected institutions often find reporting about them to be inscrutably wrong.

The article Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Modern Whistle-Blower in the New Yorker describes information bubbles exceedingly well.

In the article the author quotes from Daniel Ellsberg’s auto-biography about preparing Henry Kissinger for his time in government:

You will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess…

It will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: “What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?” And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. . . . The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron.

This resonates. When I worked at Facebook almost everything I read about the company was wrong. Mots of the “facts” reported about the company were wrong unless they were cribbed directly from earning announcements. Strategy analysis was almost always off the mark. The tone of coverage had more to do with the reporter and our relationship with them than the company’s actual actions. When the company’s actions were responsible for the tone of coverage it was usually due to how we communicated our actions rather than the actions themselves.

This must also be true of governments. Who knows what’s going on behind the Russo-American election drama. We have no way of knowing what other actions have been taken, or what information either side is acting on. We have only reportage and tweets from the Russian Embassy in Washington.

Is the US government stealing Putin’s money from his bank accounts? Disabling oil pipelines? Messing with Putin’s own upcoming election? We won’t know for a generation.

Similarly, we can’t know what it’s like to be inside Apple as it’s lapped by Google, or what it was like to be inside Microsoft as it was lapped by Apple. We can’t know why Musk really decided to have Tesla buy Solar City.

This does not mean we should give up on understanding the world around us. It just means that we should be humble.

It is worth repeating this adage frequently: “Everything you read in the newspaper is absolutely true, unless it’s about a subject you know something about.”