Information, People, Machines, and Systems

Last week United Airlines (or more properly its stockholders) had an unfortunate information experience. It turns out to be pretty delicious stuff from a sociology of information point of view. Apparently, a small newspaper in Florida linked to an old news story about UAL declaring bankruptcy (in December 2002). A google search by a staff member at a financial information website brings up the article (some sources say on a page with that day’s date on top so that it was easily mistaken for new news as opposed to old news). The info goes on the newsletter site and they are picked up by Bloomberg, perhaps the most widely distributed financial news service. Services like Bloomberg serve up headlines that anyone can see with links to full stories available only to subscribers. Once the headline hit Bloomberg, traders around the world start dumping UAL stock and other news services apparently compounded the misinformation by repeating it.[see also FN1]

Now much of the post mortem inquiry into this event seems to suggest that the main culprit was automation (e.g. Katherine Thompson on The Editors’ Weblog). One version of this is that what we saw was a tightly knit network of automated search agents and news consolidators run amok (I’m imaginging someone has already thought through the “small world” and “preferential network attachment” angles on this). Humans, this take suggests, serve a useful purpose as governors (in the mechanical sense rather than the state government sense) because they can have a “that sounds funny to me” reaction and double check something before passing it on.

So there’s lots of grist here for my chapter on technology and the information order, but for the moment I’m stuck on what we learn here about our assumptions about humans as components of information networks. Of course, we all know examples of people who don’t think before passing along what they have heard, but we recognize that we think of it as a basic norm of communication network membership: use common sense, don’t be a hollow, mechanical repeater. It’s a responsibility hinted at by many religions’ prohibitions against gossip, idle talk, and so on, although these are often primarily about spreading harmful (true or false) personal information.

In addition to the above ideas, I’ll file this under “the headline problem” — how info on the net is easily passed around (or acted on) by folks who have not read past the headline and how news consolidators and interfaces that show abbreviated titles can exacerbate this.

FN1: On a completely different analytical trajectory, one might inquire as to whether there will be a tendency here for the fingers to point, and the investigative paths to lead, in the direction of the deepest pockets (probably google).

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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