On limitless information

June 24, 2013
The uproar over data-gathering by the US government offers a message pertinent to editorial policy at Oil & Gas Journal.

The uproar over data-gathering by the US government offers a message pertinent to editorial policy at Oil & Gas Journal.

What seems to have shocked some Americans is not the fact of electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency but rather the size and scope of it, which many observers find alarming.

NSA insists it's not reading private messages. Instead, it's monitoring traffic, watching who's communicating with whom in an effort to spot suspicious patterns.

Worry lingers among the chronically cynical, however, that NSA really reads little Wentworth's birthday e-mail to Auntie Suzanne along with Mom's text message reminder to Dad to buy food for the dog on the way home from work.

The probability needle

Yet if NSA really wanted to eavesdrop on phone and e-mail exchanges, it wouldn't have accumulated all that data representing all that random communication. Probability says the difficulty of finding meaningful information grows as a function of the amount of data in hand. As the haystack expands, in other words, the needle gets harder to find.

For pattern recognition, the reverse is true. There, the more data available, the better pattern-recognition programs work.

Instead of indicating a scandalous intrusion into the privacy of Americans, the scale of NSA's data collection tends to confirm that snooping, at least with communications originating in the US, is precisely what the spooks have NOT been doing.

That the data-gathering has provoked so much controversy shows deficient appreciation for the changing nature of modern communication.

Any message—any purposeful, intelligible ensemble of facts—nowadays must transit an ever-expanding welter of accessible information, most of which, most of the time, for most people is altogether worthless. Easy-to-use electronic media, wonderful as they are, relentlessly lower the signal-to-noise ratio of communication.

Whimsical tweets, kill-on-sight e-mail messages, and stupid Facebook postings compete for the attention of grown-up professionals whose need for information useful in the intensely competitive workplace never has been greater. In the modern environment, though, searches for information too often lead to breezy blogs mass-produced by kids fresh out of journalism school on web sites designed to maximize traffic numbers rather than convey genuine intelligence.

In this welter, written communication has become a burgeoning barrage of words for the sake of words, all agglomerated into an electronic goo called nearly everywhere—although not here—content.

"Content is king," they say. But most people who say that don't mean it. Most people who enthrone "content" abuse words as search-engine bait and subordinate communication to web-site traffic numbers.

For OGJ, this all makes the present a wonderful time to be in the business of delivering intelligence about oil and natural gas.

OGJ doesn't spew content. It presents news and technical articles and statistics about a specific, vitally important business to professional workers in that business.

It selects articles and facts within articles carefully in service to one standard: usefulness to the target audience. It anticipates readers' questions about the subjects and events it covers and pursues and reports answers, in as much operational detail as possible.

And for its writing OGJ sets high standards of economy, clarity, and precision, preferring words that convey message best to inferior alternatives on the latest search-engine keyword list.

Respect for message is a tradition at OGJ. In the deep and churning ocean of oil and gas communication, so much of which lacks authority and thought, respectfully handled message stands out. So OGJ performs well with web traffic, thanks very much. No less now than in the past, message matters.

Reciprocal roles

In a way, OGJ and NSA's telecommunications surveillance program perform reciprocal roles in this new world of information practically unlimited in quantity and access.

NSA bypasses message when it accumulates as much superficial traffic data as it can in search of patterns of communication traffic meaningful to defense against terrorism.

OGJ bypasses the superficial in preference to carefully selected and purposefully selective message.

To both functions, the practical limitlessness of modern information creates a few problems but many more opportunities. And for both entities, a context of limitlessness helps immensely to define purpose.