Rivers vs. Oceans

29 Aug 2003|Christoper Ireland

This week I heard the comment “information flowing like a river” about a dozen times. Seems to be the metaphor de jour. Normally, this type of buzz wouldn’t bother me, but in this case, I think it reflects a deep and dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of information flow. I noticed that most of the people referring to information flows being like a river were tech oriented folks. From their point of view, I can see why the metaphor makes sense. If your information is flowing over a network, thru routers, hubs, portals, et al, then the flow will seem very linear and like a river. But that’s not how information exists in the world.

A more apt metaphor is an “information ocean,” complete with currents, tides, canyons, mountains, islands and shores. We are immersed in information. It surrounds us and impacts all of our senses. We can not step out of it or “float” exclusively on a narrow band of it. As a good example, I’m sitting in my kitchen typing this blog. I can hear a movie playing in the family room, the lights above me are humming softly, the picture on the wall is a favorite satire of dinner, the calendar next to it reminds me of upcoming events, this site is filled with “help” info if I need it, I’m thinking of my friends, I can smell my daughter’s hair as she moves past, I can still taste dinner, and my legs are reminding me that I had a hard workout today. All of that information is coursing through my mind simultaneously.

The same thing happens when I’m at work. The flow of information is constantly waxing and waning, responsive to the “temperature” of the office, the economic climate, the entities passing each other, the obstacles that pop up and the rescue vehicles on hand. I’d love to be able to chart this flow and figure out its physics. I know it would be massively helpful in terms of productivity gains and efficiencies. But “dumbing it down” into a river will not make the task easier–it will just make it less meaningful. Charting an ocean takes a long time and a lot of effort.

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