Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Value of Information Age

About the time I was in high school - or possibly before, because I wasn't paying attention - someone declared our modern times the "information age," attempting to indicate that information would become the most valuable commodity. Only recently have I really come to realize some of the deeper implications of that moniker.

Information as a commodity is nothing new; historically speaking, one of the reasons Alexander the Great was so successful was that he constantly scouted ahead to gather intelligence not only on the military strength of a region but on the disposition and current political landscapes of it. Sun Tzu said:

    Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is FOREKNOWLEDGE.

    1. That is, knowledge of the enemy's dispositions, and what he means to do.

    Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation.
    Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men.
Emphasis mine.

In a way, the conversation research aspect of online marketing - the role I increasingly find myself in - is exactly what Sun Tzu is talking about, but rather than our enemies we're gathering information about customers and potential customers. We're not assessing the strength of their armies just by counting troops, we're surveying the political landscape to best figure out how our policies will map to their policies.

But a lot of the research that goes into building out our reports comes from sources that we pay for in one way or another. There are subscription-based news aggregators, and of course our clients pay us for our time. And the information itself, in its raw form, is somewhat useless: we not only play the role of intelligence gathering but we play the role of general to a certain degree, offering advice based on what we can synthesize from the information provided.

And certainly there is value in that, but the not-so-cynical part in my asks: what is the value of other information? Certainly my friends Roger and Angela, who have chosen more academic careers, are doing something very similar to what I do: gathering data, synthesizing it, creating something new. But the nature of academia is that they will never (and trust me when I say this is criminal) make as much as someone in the private sector for doing the same basic kind of work and, arguably, more important work than figuring out how better to sell people things they don't really need anyway.

Which is to say nothing about experiential information. Can you even place a dollar value on the kinds of information and the kinds of synthesis that comes with age and experience? Certainly a job that requires "10-15 years experience" pays more than one that requires "1-2 years" but take, for example, my trip to Spain - is there any way to put an actual value on the experience and perspective I gained from that trip? Somehow I doubt it.

I leave the post open-ended for the Puppeteers to weigh in on if they wish.

Also: thanks to all who commented on my last post!

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