The Speed Of Information (And Why It Matters)

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I often go off on a rant when breaking news happens and I can’t find anything on TV about it until an hour after the event.

As a meteorologist with many friends working in broadcast media, I often get a lot of heat for pointing out how outdated television news as an information source is. I’ve had plenty of Twitter arguments with people whose livelihoods rely on the ongoing profits of television broadcasts.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have friends asking me “who cares?”

I do. And you should too.

Earlier this week, I saw on Facebook (of all places) that a shooting was ongoing at Ft. Hood,TX (again). I texted my mom to let her know, as we used to live there and still have some connections to the place. She texted back “On what channel?”

She was flipping through the cable news stations and getting no information. At this point, the shooting had occurred nearly half an hour prior.

My mother is relatively comfortable with technology for her age. She has an iPhone as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts. But she still gets most of her news from TV or anything she catches on the radio on her commute.

She’s not alone. A Gallup poll in the summer of 2013 showed that TV is still America’s primary news source. This goes for all age groups–yes, Generation Y included.

In January 2009, a regular guy named Janis Krums broke the Miracle on the Hudson story with a simple picture on Twitter.

The picture quickly went viral, with news stations picking it up and reporting on it.

Now, five years later, social media is consistently breaking news faster than old school media.

Should technologically savvy citizens have faster access to information than less savvy citizens?

If the news doesn’t impact you directly, why do you care if you hear about it half an hour later?

Information is invaluable. I imagine this same conversation has happened throughout the millenia as new ways of getting information have been developed:

  • Who needs writing when we have spoken word?
  • Who needs the printing press when we have monks handwriting books?
  • Who needs to deliver messages by horse when we can just run?
  • Who needs the telegram when we have horses to deliver news?
  • Who needs the telephone when we can just wait for the telegram?
  • Who needs the internet when we can just call someone on the phone?

Now I’m flipping this and asking: who needs TV when we have social media?

Sure, older forms of communication are still valuable–hell, we still use spoken word more than we use the internet. But many forms of communication have become irrelevant with time, like the telegram and handwritten books, while others are struggling to keep up in a changing time, like the postal service, whose services are still necessary but less necessary than they were even 20 years ago.

Thankfully, ships no longer have to cross the Atlantic to tell us how the war with the colonies is going. Wars have been won and lost with timely and truthful (or misleading) intelligence. Who gets to decide what information is important for you and me to know?

Let me be clear: I’m all about accuracy of information. This is not about speed for speed’s sake, although I would argue that if you care about the speed of your internet and cable but not about the speed at which you obtain information, your priorities may be misaligned.

There is a lot of misinformation on social media. A lot a lot. But if a news channel can tweet about breaking news as it happens but not even cut in to their corresponding 24-hour news channel to say “We are receiving information about XYZ event, we will keep you updated as we learn more,” then why should I even turn the TV on?

Old media really seems to be struggling to merge its new media presence with the old. Almost every TV station and newspaper has a website and social media profiles. While I don’t expect the newspaper to be printed off fresh every time breaking news occurs, it is mind boggling to me that CNN can tweet about something as it happens then continue to report on something irrelevant on the air.

Unless television news can successfully integrate the information I can find quickly online into its format, I have as much need for it as I do for the telegram.

Viva la información.


The Business of Communication

I’m sitting at Ronald Reagan National Airport, waiting for my first work trip to start. I told my (then soon-to-be) supervisors during the interview process that I enjoy traveling, so my number came up for this trip…to Detroit. My more senior coworker went to Seattle earlier this month, and the other new guy went to Atlanta a week after that. I must have drawn the short straw.

Nonetheless, I’m interested in how this experience will go. I am well-rested from the weekend and have participated in enough meetings over the past three months at my company to anticipate at least a little excitement from this first visit with this lab. Scientists and business people collaborating—you know something awesome is going to happen. And it’s probably going to revolve around miscommunication.

I like to read relationship forums for the same reason I like to watch the Maury show—entertainment, first and foremost, but also the assurance that I’m doing better than somebody. I’ve yet to read a well-thought out answer on these forums with the response boiling down to more than, “Well, have you talked to him/her about it?” It’s a simple question, and the original poster always comes back with a defensive “of course!” Of course, if the couple had actually been conversing, not just talking, then one of them would probably not be asking anonymous internet strangers for help. (Or going on the Maury show, free trip to New York or not.)

Matt and I consider one of the strengths of our relationship to be our detailed level of communication. I think we both attribute a lot of this to the long-distance nature of our relationship, where we had to use our words to explain how we were feeling. When most people would kiss and make-up or go into separate rooms to fume, we were stuck, staring at each other on webcam. We couldn’t ignore our problems or the whole interaction would unravel. Thankfully, we both thought the other was worth fighting/conversing for.

The people I am meeting up with on this site visit I’ve only “met” in conference calls. I don’t even know what they look like. So far, we have only been able to rely on words (and screenshots) to convey our project. These face-to-face interactions are invaluable. My team is working on a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) to be used within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratories across the United States. It is supposed to harmonize synergies…or something. No really, despite all the business talk, it’s a good idea for the science. But the functional (scientist) and operational (program manager) sides don’t always understand one another. Often, the scientists in my company don’t understand the needs of the other scientists at individual sites.

I can hear the frustration on both sides of the phone call when a point of contention arises. Why didn’t you listen to us? We already told you all this. I’m just the notetaker, but for any in-person meetings I always have to stop myself from looking around at everyone in the room with a surprised “Did you just hear that?!” look on my face (what can I say? I watch Maury; I love me some drama). I’ve been very impressed with the business-y responses I’ve seen from the program management team, of which I am a part. I wish my thesis committee meetings had all gone so cordially! I used to make sure I was in the lab whenever Eric had a committee meeting, because it supplied my much-needed dose of drama for the day. I’d have Nathan and sometimes Eric’s wife on Gchat, ready to supply updates from the field.

Now, I’m working with the people whose job it is to keep everyone happy. I do not think it is in me to do that on a daily basis in the way my supervisors do, and, if I may generalize for a moment, I think the division between the heated scientists and the cool-minded business people is clear. And this is not just the FDA scientists; my company’s scientists can also get heated in a way the program management team does not, at least not in a group meeting. It was one of the first things that my Quality Assurance team brought to my attention in my meeting minutes: I use too many emotionally-charged words. My initial reaction was that what constitutes an emotionally-charged word is subjective in and of itself, and I nodded along as I was told that my choice of verbs was too opinionated for meeting minutes. It’s the nature of my writing, academic or otherwise, to try to tell a story, and I can follow the meeting better when it is written as:

Bob argued that the system needed the additional features, and Steve countered that the features would affect overall functionality.

Rather than:

Bob said that the system needed the additional features, and Steve said that the features would affect overall functionality.

Was Steve saying that as an aside to Bob’s point, agreeing with him? I don’t know, it just says “said,” so there is no flow.

Once I got over my pet writing preferences (ok I’m not really over them), I understood that the bigger picture was to not make anyone feel like they have been characterized incorrectly. I could poll all the attendees at the meeting and they could all say that Bob was definitely arguing, but Bob is going to become defensive at the wording in the account. So we use “said”…every…time.

We also want to appear unified as a company, so our minutes refer to the “Dovel Team” rather than to a particular individual answering questions. If a lab user wants to know if something is plausible, we don’t sit around arguing for half an hour about whether it is a dumb request, we make note of it, legitimately follow-up with the lab later, and in the meantime continue with the scheduled agenda.

But all the objectively-worded meeting minutes in the world will not take care of the fundamental issue of miscommunication. Conversations require a level of mutual respect and understanding among all parties involved, which I think already exists in these meetings. Once that criterion is met, there should be some active listening going on, ensuring that everyone understands each other before moving onto the next topic. And then no one feels misunderstood or ignored. Except for everyone on the Maury show.