Beware The High Price Of Free Information

Jim Blasingame

Stone Age humans had about 2.5 million years to prepare for the Bronze Age, followed by 2,000 years to transition to the Iron Age, which lasted about 800 years. Meanwhile, modern humans, barely in the third decade of the 21st century, are dealing with the 50-something Digital Age transmogrifying into the Information Age at the speed of light, literally in front of our eyes. 

No other human generation in history has ever had to make this kind of shift.

A wise person once said that the most powerful force in civilization is information. Well, today, humans are awash in that power in the form of digital records of everything from “Breaking News!” to virtually everything that’s ever been said, written, or happened since Og and Gog invented the wheel in the Stone Age. And the following points represent the two sides of the Information Age Paradox: 

  • The power of information is now digitally amplified with a no-higher barrier to create, distribute and consume it than the tap of a finger. 
  • Composed of two sides – at once contrary and complimentary – a paradox can be valuable, or not. Consequently, all this instantaneous finger-tapping is a good thing – until it isn’t.

In his song, “Against the Wind,” Bob Seger lamented that deadlines and commitments caused him to choose “what to leave in, what to leave out.” As digitally-driven information morphs from handy to firehose, we have to learn how to consume it with increasing discernment – what to leave in, what to leave out.

As citizens of the Information Age, we’re constantly and increasingly at risk of becoming victims and/or purveyors of a potentially perilous phenomenon called Availability Cascade. It occurs when we’re exposed to something so much – a maxim, a meme, misinformation, or disinformation – that we begin to accept it as truth and reality, and worse, act on it without confirming its accuracy or relevance. Here’s an old story from what I’ve named the “Analog Age” that demonstrates the power of Availability Cascade.

A busy baker saw this headline in a newspaper: “Economy headed for recession.” Reacting to this “information,” he cut his flour order in half. In a matter of days, the local miller was compelled to reduce his wheat order from nearby farmers, who canceled equipment orders with the manufacturer, who laid-off employees who now couldn’t afford to eat at the restaurants that purchased the baker’s bread, causing bread orders to crumble. In the economy, Availability Cascade is a circular process – like a tornado.

By the way, the day the baker cut his flour order, he had plenty of business. But now, out of business and locking up his shop for the last time, he happened to notice the newspaper where he’d previously seen the gloomy headline. Looking closer, this time at the date, he was shocked to see that the paper was decades old. Turns out, it had been part of a display his antique store neighbor was creating. By not checking the information against the reality in front of his very eyes – he became both the creator and victim of Availability Cascade.

Recently, when we polled our online audience about the possibility of a recession next year, 87% allowed it was likely. But are we really in danger, or are we like the baker?

From our perch out here on Main Street, do we rely too much on the hysteria of Wall Street (“OMG! How many times will the Fed raise rates in 2022?”) and the hyperbole of the Media (“Is WWIII inevitable?”). Wall Street admits they can’t make money unless the “market” is moving up or down, and they don’t care which way. And the Media knows that “Dog Bites Man” isn’t a headline, but “Man Bites Dog” makes you click.

Consequently, over-consumption of hysteria products produces – you guessed it: Availability Cascade. And like the baker, poor information management could create a recession that didn’t have to happen. As we’ve learned twice this century, recessions don’t hurt Wall Street much anymore. But it can be devastating out here on Main Street, where true GDP is measured by making things customers can hold and then serving them face-to-face. Hysteria not sold here. 

The more that information is free, the more frequent and perilous Availability Cascade becomes. So, the price of free, easy, and instantaneous “BREAKING NEWS” is the responsibility to become discerning consumers of digital information delivered through a firehose, especially today’s economic and geopolitical news. 

The Availability Cascade effect is two-dimensional information looking for someone to stick to, who will add the third dimension of life and legs by acting on it without jaundiced-eye verification and skeptical-ear due diligence. In the Stone Age, “acting” was rolling a wheel, in the Information Age, acting is “retweeting.” 

The Information Age is leveling the playing field and empowering us as never before. But it can also take us down if we become victims of its worst aspects, like creating or getting caught up in Availability Cascade. The good news is we can avoid talking ourselves into a recession with three steps: 

  1. Do your own research and come to your own conclusions about real economic conditions happening in front of your own eyes; 
  2. Spend less time listening to talking heads and the wildebeest herds on Wall Street;
  3. Spend more time listening to what customers need, but more importantly, what they want.

Write this on a rock … If things are good with your business, say that – out loud – to whoever will listen. Maybe you’ll start a productive and true Availability Cascade. It could happen.

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.

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