Information and Power

There is a saying that knowledge is power which in many ways is quite true. Related to that is that the control of knowledge (information) is also a great power. I’ve seen this several ways in my personal experience. Most recently I was on a jury. Over and over we were told to make our decisions based only on the information (evidence) that was presented to us. We were not to do any outside research on our own. No visits to the scene, no reading in newspapers, no Internet searches, nothing outside the court room. The clear goal is to let the lawyers with some help from the judge completely control the information we had.

That is the way the system is supposed to work and I guess it is mostly a good one. But for someone who likes to look up thing and dig deeper it was a little frustrating. I don’t like it when others control my access to information. But I played by the rules even though I felt like I was missing information.

More in the past was my involvement on a school district budget committee. In that role I and the other members were charged with setting the annual budget for a school system. The administration (business manager and superintendent) had almost complete control over the information we had available to do that work. Oh we could ask other people (principals, department heads, and teachers for example) but even with that for much of what we needed the administration was our only option. I remain convinced that there were times when we were “played” to some extent. Not that I suspect the administration of ill intent just that in order to get what they thought was important then controlled what we knew,

The great myth about the Internet is that it removes or bypasses the filters to information. That it empowers people by providing information they did not always have. It’s a nice story and to a great extent there is truth there. But some information is never going to be fully available online. It is in people’s heads and passed by word of mouth. It is hidden in obscure language and/or jargon. Over time some of it will be exposed but there is so much out there. Which brings up information hiding. The old stick the needle in a haystack principle. Search engines can only help so much.

Ultimately you have to be able to trust people. Trusting the powerless is so much easier than trusting the powerful though. Insisting on more transparency and holding people accountable for providing information will help. Setting standards of transparency will help create an environment were it is expected. But I think it will take time. The powerful do not relinquish power easily and the power to control information is a temptress.

Leave a Reply