Entering the age of big information

Historians will ultimately come to a consensus on what to call the days between the frenzy that was the dot-com bubble and the period we are now on the cusp of entering. I call this brief blip (1995-2005) the Age of Little Information.

I come to this label not because the age exhibited a lack of information. Quite the contrary; it was during this period that information — previously locked away in analogue form — became widely digitized. All this newly digitized data had little impact on behaviour, however.

We are now exiting an era of undermanaged and only-occasionally-acted-upon information and entering the Age of Big Information, a more aggressive era, in which we will be held much more accountable for our data management behaviours. In the Age of Little Information, we were data vegetarians. In the Age of Big Information, we will have to become knowledge carnivores.

In this new age, there will be a lot of information. Working with epistemologists and library scientists and archivists, I have estimated that information to the tune of approximately 1,500 Library of Congress collections (over 10 petabytes) enters the global data stream every day.

In the Age of Big Information, we are moving completely away from the once-a-day-ness of the postal service and the six o’clock news to the always-on-ness of e-mail and cell phones. Even the staid U.S. Census Bureau has accelerated its information metabolic rate, more than 100 surveys every year. The American Community Survey will soon arrive monthly.

But the biggest difference is that because there is more information, there will be more competitive advantage to be generated from the informed and creative management of information and information technology.

In the Age of Little Information, scads of iPod-ers blithely toted orders of magnitude more computing power than that which carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon, a fact that most of them failed to appreciate. Steve Jobs can rest assured that the iPod is insanely great technology, but it represents passive information management.

In the Age of Big Information, we will be surrounded by tools of mass instruction. Knowledge tools will have the capability of delivering all the smartness of the planet to a device that fits in the palms of our hands. What are you going to do with all this capability?

In the Age of Big Information, we will be awash in information, as we are today, but we will begin to improve our ability to make use of all the information that is deluging us.

Increasingly, your success in business will depend on the facility with which you and your enterprise can connect and then convert heretofore unimaginably large, complex, litigable sets of data into action that is timely to the context of the information.

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— May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. Contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com.

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