Five Minutes With...

Five Minutes with David Sarokin and Jay Schulkin

Information is power. It drives commerce, protects nations, and forms the backbone of systems that range from health care to high finance. In Missed Information, David Sarokin and Jay Schulkin argue that better information and better access to it improves the quality of our decisions and makes for a more vibrant participatory society. The authors discuss their new book in this post.

How did an environmental scientist and a neuroscientist come together to write this book? 

Our backgrounds and disciplines are important, but the real value of our teaming up on Missed Information stems from a long period of friendship and professional collaboration, much of it spent in conversation over the ideas in our book. We should point out, though that—as an environmental scientist—Sarokin created the Toxics Release Inventory, the first federal law to explicitly use information as an environmental policy tool. Schulkin, as a neuroscientist, focuses daily on how information is processed in biological systems. And as creatures of the Information Age, we’re just fascinated by (and optimistic about) the possibilities of putting better data to better use.

Information can bring about change in industries, and your book shows the power of information in altering relationships between consumers, authorities, and companies. Are ordinary people more or less aware now that there is so much information—sometimes competing, but always overwhelming—out there?

Almost everyone is aware that there is more information out there, and better and faster access to much of it through online tools. But as we lay out in our book, society seems much more focused on information technology than on the quality and robustness of information itself. This leads to blind spots even among information experts. Take healthcare, for instance. The reason it’s so difficult for people to compare health insurance options, find a new doctor, and understand hospital bills is that the information milieu of the entire healthcare system is pretty much in shambles. This is much more than mere inconvenience. It means the system does not—indeed, cannot—work efficiently in the presence of so much unreliable and opaque information. When the situation improves through better healthcare information and better tools for using it, both patients and healthcare professionals will eagerly take advantage of it.

How can the free flow of information be reconciled with certain nations’ interest in economic protectionism?  

Interesting question. We examined Freedom of Information Act in the U.S. in our book, and found that—good intentions notwithstanding—government information didn’t always flow that freely, even in one of the world’s most open societies. Similarly, public companies produce annual reports chock full of data, but what gets reported isn’t always particularly useful. Protectionism, then, is only part of the equation. Even very open systems still need to step up their game in terms of information quality and information access, what we call “hypertransparency” for government systems. Our book suggests several mechanisms whereby governments, companies and the marketplace as a whole can fill in some of the “missed information” gaps.

You write that “deliberate secrecy comes at a large cost.” How do the work of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange contribute to our Information Age?

Regardless of whether one sees them as heroes or criminals (or some sort of hybrid), Snowden and Assange have created awareness of secret government information-gathering practices and sparked some very important debates about the appropriateness of such practices. Beyond just discussion, the whistleblowing has also brought about changes in how government’s mass-surveillance works. In essence, they have provided “information about information,” and have very convincingly demonstrated our thesis that information, on its own, can be a powerful agent of change.

You have several chapters in the book that discuss the connection between information and a more sustainable world. Can you explain that in a nutshell?

240 years ago, Adam Smith showed us how information about prices creates an invisible hand that steers the marketplace towards efficiency. If we add information to that system about human values—information about child labor, environmental protection, worker safety, and more—then those same invisible forces can steer the marketplace, and the world at large, towards a more sustainable future. Missed Information delves into this prospect in detail, and explores mechanisms for translating ideas into action. One possibility: leveraging the buying power and market influence of very large purchasers like Walmart and the U.S. government to create a simple yet powerful sustainability rating system.

You end the book by pointing to events like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, where information technologies—both police body cameras and citizens’ camera phones and social media—significantly impacted the aftermath. Do you think new technologies are effective at increasing accountability from institutions? Are there limitations?

Technology can be an important tool of accountability, but technology alone is not the key. Communities need to come to a common understanding with law enforcement about the type of information collected, the means and limits of information access and—probably most importantly—mechanisms for feedback that allow citizens to effectively voice their concerns, simply and in real time (or pretty close to it). As an example, we highlight one useful tool in the book—a social media app called Five-0. It’s a rough start, and probably needs a more robust platform, but it’s off in a promising direction.