American Senator Daniel Moynihan’s famous line, “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts” was reworked by Governor Mitt Romney during last weeks Presidential debate as, “you can have you own office and your own plane, but you can’t have your own facts”. Whilst politicians are hardly in a position to lecture the rest of us about the use of facts, it raises an important point: opinions are NOT facts, but increasingly they seem to be presented as such.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise; we live in an information society, but our ability to process that information probably hasn’t grown much from the time when the Library of Alexandria contained virtually the entire sum of human knowledge within it’s 700,000 books. So we reach for shortcuts or we accept the opinion of people who seem reliable or who are deemed to be experts. In some ways, we’ve become so used to doing this, that such opinions become facts (or factoids) themselves, facts of the “it must be right because so and so wouldn’t lie” variety.
In comparison to the number of blogs and sites offering an opinion on everything from politics to fashion, the number of fact checking sites is tiny. Services such as Truth Squad for politics or computational engines such as Wolfram Alpha to check the raw numbers are in a small minority, but one thing’s for sure on the internet, if the demand is there, the sites will come. So we need to educate ourselves and our children on the importance of differentiating fact from opinion and demand access to the facts or the ability to check on the facts that we’re given to us in everyday life. It’s time we all became a new breed of information connoisseurs.
If you’re a parent or have been parented (so that’s all of us), I’d urge you to read Paul Graham’s essay on the lies we tell our kids. The idea that we end up as adults with a ‘truth debt’ is a nice way to picture the problem. That our views of the world are heavily influenced by our parents is not exactly news, but Graham makes his point from what to me is a different angle. It takes real effort to step outside of the circle that we are brought up in and it’s one of the reasons why the children of doctors become doctors, the children of engineers become engineers etc. Both as adults and as parents, by understanding what we’re doing, we can maintain the benefits whilst guarding against the downside.
It’s easy, especially for those of us who’ve inhabited the technology world for some time, to forget that technology is not an end itself, it’s merely a means or a tool to do something better or faster or cheaper or in a different time or place etc. So when an interesting new technology hits the streets, I have to fight my natural inclination to squirrel into the technology itself and take a step back; one which allows me to assess the impact (big or small) and the potential consequences of the technology.
At the moment, I have my eye on 3D printing and the nascent Maker Movement in the US (and increasingly elsewhere too). In it’s desire for people to seek a more authentic and ‘hands on’ relationship with products, the Maker Movement can trace it’s roots back to the craft breweries of San Francisco in the early and mid seventies, but I think it’s one of those technologies, when coupled with internet based distribution, that has the potential to unlock enormous changes in the way we design, make and distribute the everyday products that we rely on. There was a time when I thought it would be contained to some of the more traditional craft areas, but I was astonished to find people making cars, synthesisers and much more. When Sir James Dyson recently voiced his concerns about the focus on internet startups in the Old Street area, at the expense of ‘designers and makers’ what he overlooked is that the area is also home to an incredibly vibrant and creative ‘makers’. Watch this space.