(Why You Should Develop) A Passion for (Protecting) the Intangible
People often confuse information protection with IT security. One of the reasons I resist the compartmentalization of my craft as an automated, software driven process is that as important as it is, IT security not only reduces the scope of my work by at least two-thirds, but it misses the point of what it means to truly enable protection for the intangible. The important task of protecting information absolutely depends on people who are interested, educated and dare I say it, passionate. Security doesn’t work without a high level of consistent human engagement. Privacy fails without passion and respect. In fact, no modern, human activity functions effectively without a high degree of emotional investment.
Why is this? Why can’t we systematize everything and build an app for it? Because we are dealing with a substance free from physical properties. Information is intangible, tasteless, colorless and for the most part, odorless. It is perhaps the most impactful of substances, driving world economies and impacting everyone on the planet on a very individual level. And so, our relationship with information is very personal and delicate. Although it doesn’t impact our senses the way a piece of cheese or silly putty do, it can assault our being and drive our existence in powerful ways. And yet, we cannot touch it.
We can contain it, constrain it, shape it and share it. We can use it to sculpt truly divine creations or to cause catastrophic destruction. And so it scales. It touches us at a molecular and emotional level. It affects our organizations and economies on a gigantic scale. It generously allows us to tame it, selflessly allowing us to claim credit for its infinitely beautiful uses and reap the profits of using it to our benefit. If I always describe it in almost anthropomorphic terms, it’s because it has almost angelic properties. It is better than us. It is deeply rooted in data. It is precise, articulate and discretely connected.
Information is a reflection of us. It can be kind or harsh, specific or vague, concise or verbose, trivial or meaningful, ugly or beautiful. But it is always genuine and for that reason, we instinctively care for it in a different way than we care for its raw materials: data. Without realizing it, much of what we do on a daily basis is a quest for developing new ways to embrace information, to nurture it, repurpose or abuse it.
We imagine, then invent exciting mechanisms, processes, apps or gizmos just so we can drop data into them and with a child’s wide eyed anticipation, observe as these are transformed into meaning. Is that not the very essence of power? Information is malleable and compliant, allowing us to adapt systems that exploit its wonderful promises and unlock its enormous potential. But it is only on a personal or social level that we can truly understand it, relate to it and yes, protect it.
So if you argue that information is a commodity, I will cautiously agree. But the ways we share the world with this entity are anything but trivial. Data are, and is, eternal. It’s out there, everywhere, independent of us. Information however is elusive, special and transient. Information appears when we pay attention. It is the exquisite nectar derived from training our wits on collecting and interpreting instantiations of this ambient element. And the resulting elixir has spurred humanity’s progress since the beginning of time. This quest for cumulative knowledge separates us from most other living things. Every innovation you hear about on a daily basis has to do with improving on the use of data for artistic, scientific and economic purposes. Exceptional computing mines, distils and purifies quality data. Exceptional people thrive on information. Information is data with purpose, scope and dimension. Data scientists are the artists and alchemists of our time. And so, our achievement is the product of two entities: people and information. Do we love it? You bet. Are we responsible for protecting it? Absolutely. Can we entirely delegate? Never. And that’s the beauty of this symbiotic relationship.
Some (more) delectable evidence:https://web.archive.org/web/20130903235645if_/http://embed.ted.com/talks/david_mccandless_the_beauty_of_data_visualization.htmlhttps://web.archive.org/web/20130903235645if_/http://embed.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html
Google’s Data Centres: Click through to PetaPixel:
Finally, you can’t be a true information junkie without marveling illustrated logarithmic timelines, in particular those meticulously “arranged” by one John B. Sparks, dating back to 1932. These fascinating early infographics used to sell for just $1. But don’t let me spoil your fun. You and Google can look up Histomaps right here.
And purely for context, a more recent but less complete artistic rendition (this is the GeologicTimeSpiral):