01.17.13

Navigating the Grey Area – Curation, Storytelling and Wisdom in the Age of Data

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One of the great frustrations of networked culture is how hard it is to find exactly what you are looking for in the scads of useless information that fills the web.  I always have the lingering sense that there is a vacation, a flight, a pair of pants or an article out there that I did not see and that is better suited to my particular tastes and sensibilities.  Search, while much better than it used to be, is still hugely imperfect.  Social media was supposed to help, but instead it just adds more (mostly)  unwanted information to my daily stream.

Most of us have devised a series of convoluted hacks to find, consume and share the information we need.   I found it fascinating to read about the information habits of the high-brow professional, Jason Pontin, EIC of the MIT Technology Review.  Pontin starts his day with his iPad, before even leaving bed, and most often closes it with a book.  In between, he consumes vast amounts of information.    My favorite line in the interview?  “When I’m depressed, I reread Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin historical novels, or Gene Wolfe’s great science fiction tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun. Both series comfort me.”  Sorting through reams of quasi-random information every day, seeking value, can be depressing indeed.

In the January 13th, New York Times, Alissa Quart picks up on this theme, offering an articulate and impassioned plea for the importance of narrative in our lives.  She argues that with so much dissociated information coming at us all the time, we crave the stability and absorption of a well-constructed story.  She claims that this is why we are currently experiencing a revival in “adult-minded serials whose story lines unfold over the life span of the series and whose strongest kinship is to the serialized novel of the 19th century.”  Think Mad Men, Homeland, Downton Abby, Treme and Breaking Bad to name a few.   We crave the reliability and soothing quality of a coherent and engaging tale.

A world of undifferentiated, incoherent information is exhausting.  As behavioral economists and others have demonstrated, choices wear us down, quite literally.  We are only capable of making so many choices per day, before we become overwhelmed and either shut down or start making really bad decisions.   How quickly do your eyes glaze over after combing a couple of pages of Google results?

So what’s the answer?  As my experience with the networked world has evolved, I find that one of my greatest pleasures is discovering a gem-like, carefully curated website or blog that matches my tastes and sensibilities.  The travel blog written by someone who has a budget and set of values similar to mine.   The cooking site that features recipes that match my definition of healthy and delicious.  I most love those sites that match my cultural, personal and moral sensibilities, while also stretching me a bit beyond my comfort zone, like a really smart and interesting friend who is curating an aspect of the world for me.  I cannot imagine that sites such as these can be produced by algorithms.  The carefully curated content I desire is the result of thoughtful, wise and insightful human experience.

I would love to see a start up dedicated to “curating the curators”.  This would be a place I could go and search based on my particular sensibilities.  The search categories could be a sophisticated mix of sociological, economic, demographic and emotional choices.  The site could incorporate some of the very good algorithm-based technology found in recommendation engines such as Zite and Amazon – bottom up.  And it could also approach domain experts and ask them for their go-to sites – top down.  But the fundamental value would be in human beings selecting and managing the content.  Only we can curate for each other and more power to the passion and drive that makes us good at it.

The next phase of the web will be about navigating the grey area between algorithms working on data and human hearts and minds seeking knowledge and wisdom in a new connected world.  I no longer believe the answer lies in aggregating crowds or friends – this approach boils all the individuality and creativity out of the mix.  And my social network friends, as much as I love them, rarely offer up the information I am looking for — though a well-curated Twitter feed can be a boon.  We need to find ways to celebrate and connect our unique interests and passions, person to person.  We have become reasonably adept at moving from data to information.  Now we need to make the move from information to knowledge and, ultimately, to wisdom and back.  Things might move more slowly, and some bottlenecks could form, but it will be worth it.  I don’t really need the services of a system tailored to serve 1 billion people.  I need one that I can adapt to me.