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What Meets the I

InfoSense: Understanding Information to Survive in the Knowledge Society
March 1, 1999

American airlines flight 965 from Miami to Cali, Colombia, rammed a mountainside in December 1995, killing all 159 on board. The cause: a disconnect between information and context. Air traffic controllers in Cali radioed the plane to fly toward a nearby beacon named “Rozo.” From a computerized list of beacons beginning with the letter R, the crew selected the first-by convention, the nearest. But in this case, unbeknownst to the crew, the list began with “Romeo,” 100 miles to the left in Bogota. The autopilot followed the faulty directions, leading to what accident investigators call “controlled flight into terrain.”

Humans only acquire data or “little-i information” and make it into useful understanding or “big-I Information” by assuming a context for it, and the results can be disastrous if they assume the wrong one, mathematician and math popularizer Keith Devlin warns in InfoSense. In the terms of the “situation theory” developed by Devlin and his colleagues at Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Language and Information, the American Airlines crew sealed their doom by relating a piece of little-i information (the letter R) to a “constraint” or context (the convention of listing beacons from nearest to farthest) that was different from the constraints observed by the programmers of the flight mangement computer.

“We are so used to dealing with information in our everyday lives…that we often fail to see the complexities involved,” Devlin observes. Using examples as gripping as the American Airlines disaster and as mundane as a poorly designed ATM screen, he argues that a situation-theory view of information can forestall misunderstandings in the cockpit, the office or the operating room.

Using situation theory, Devlin and his colleagues have mathematically validated a number of interesting strategies for boosting productivity and innovation within a group. For example, it turns out that optimum team size is two or three; as more members join, the opportunities for misunderstandings multiply far faster than does brainpower. And “information immersion”-surrounding a team with relevant data, whether stored on low-tech whiteboards or on sophisticated “knowledge maps” running on corporate intranets-can make communication more efficient by increasing the overlap between team members’ individual contexts, Devlin shows. Readers immersing themselves in InfoSense will find there is far more to information than meets the I.

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