Thinking Out Loud: Potential Information

(image) If you took first-year physics in school, you’re familiar with the concepts of potential and kinetic energy. If you skipped Physics, here’s a brief review: Kinetic energy is energy possessed by bodies in motion. Potential energy is energy stored inside a body that has the potential to create motion. It’s sort of kinetic energy’s twin – the two work in concert, defining how pretty much everything moves around in physical space.

I like to think of potential energy as a force that’s waiting to become kinetic. For example, if you climb up a slide, you have expressed kinetic energy to overcome the force of gravity and bring your “mass” (your body) to the top. Once you sit at the top of that slide, you are full of the potential energy created by your climb – which you may once again express as kinetic energy on your way back down. Gravity provides what is known as the field, or system, which drives all this energy transfer.

For whatever reason, these principles of kinetic and potential energy have always resonated with me. They are easily grasped, to be certain, but it’s also how evocative they are. Everything around us is either in motion or it’s not – objects are either animated by kinetic energy (a rock flying through the air), or they are at rest, awaiting a kinetic event which might create action and possibly some narrative consequence (a rock laying on the street, picked up by an angry protestor….).

To me, kinetic and potential energy are the bedrock of narrative – there is energy all around us, and once that energy is set in motion, the human drama unfolds. The rock provides mass, the protestor brings energy, and gravity animates the consequence of a stone thrown…

Because we are physical beings, the principles of motion and force are hard wired into how we navigate the world – we understand gravity, even if we can’t run the equations to prove its cause and effect. But when it comes to the world of digital information, we struggle with a framework for understanding cause and effect – in particular with how information interacts with the physical world. We speak of “software eating the world,” “the Internet of Things,” and we massify “data” by declaring it “Big.” But these concepts remain for the most part abstract. It’s hard for many of us to grasp the impact of digital technology on the “real world” of things like rocks, homes, cars, and trees. We lack a metaphor that hits home.

But lately I’ve been using the basic principles of kinetic and potential energy as a metaphor in casual conversations, and it seems to have some resonance. Now, I’m not a physicist, and it’s entirely possible I’ve mangled the concepts as I think out loud here. Please pile on and help me express this as best I can. But in the meantime…

…allow me to introduce the idea of potential information. Like potential energy, the idea of potential information is that all physical objects contain the potential to release information if placed in the right system. In the physical world, we have a very large scale system already in place – it’s called gravity. Gravity provides a field of play, the animating system which allows physical objects (a rock, a child at the top of a slide) to become kinetic and create a narrative (a rock thrown in anger, a child whooping in delight as she slides toward the sand below).

It seems to me that if we were to push this potential information metaphor, then we need our gravity – our system that allows for potential information to become kinetic, and to create narratives that matter. To my mind, that system is digital technology, broadly, and the Internet, specifically. When objects enter the system of technology and the Internet, they are animated with the potential to become information objects. Before contact with the Internet, they contain potential information, but that information is repressed, because it has no system which allows for its expression.

In this framework, it strikes me that many of the most valuable companies in the world are in the business of unlocking potential information – of turning the physical into information. Amazon and eBay unlocked the value of merchandise’s potential information. Airbnb turns the potential information of spare bedrooms into kinetic information valued at nearly \$10 billion and counting. Uber unlocked the potential information trapped inside transportation systems.  Nest is animating the potential information lurking in all of our homes. And Facebook leveraged the potential information lurking in our real world relationships.

I’d wager that the most valuable companies yet to be built will share this trait of animating potential information. One of the best ideas I’ve heard in the past few weeks was a pitch from an inmate at San Quentin (part of The Last Mile, an amazing program worthy of all your support). This particular entrepreneur, a former utilities worker, wanted to unlock all the potential information residing in underground gas, sewage, and other utilities. In fact, nearly every good idea I’ve come across over the past few years has had to do with animating potential information of some kind.

Which brings us to Google – and back to Nest. In its first decade, Google was most certainly in the business of animating potential information, but it wasn’t physical information. Instead, Google identified an underutilized class of potential information – the link – and transformed it into a new asset – search. A link is not a physical artifact, but Google treated as if it were, “mapping” the Web and profiting from that new map’s extraordinary value.

Now the race is on to create a new map – a map of all the potential information in the real world. What’s the value of potential information coming off a jet engine, or  a wind turbine? GE’s already on it. What about exploiting the potential information created by your body? Yep, that’d be Jawbone, FitBit, Nike, and scores of others. The potential information inside agriculture? Chris Anderson’s all over it. And with Nest, Google is becoming a company that unlocks not only the information potential of the Web, but of the physical world we inhabit (and yes, it’s already made huge and related moves via its Chauffeur, Earth, Maps, and other projects).

Of course, potential information can be leveraged for more than world-beating startups. The NSA understands the value of potential information, that’s why the agency has been storing as much potential information as it possibly can. What does it mean when government has access to all that potential information? (At least we are having the dialog now – it seems if we didn’t have Edward Snowden, we’d have to create him, no?)

Our world is becoming information – but then again, it’s always had that potential. Alas, I’m just a layman when it comes to understanding information theory, and how information actually interacts with physical mass (and yes, there’s a lot of science here, far more than I can grok for the purposes of this post.) But the exciting thing is that we get to be present at the moment all this information is animated into narratives that will have dramatic consequences for our world. This is a story I plan to read deeply in over the coming year, and I hope you’ll join me as I write more about it here.

11 thoughts on “Thinking Out Loud: Potential Information”

1. Great post John and a useful new way to view something that I absolutely agree is becoming more obvious with every passing day – there is real value to be unlocked in such data. Whilst most would say that we’ve always instinctively known that the value lies in the analysis of data that is collected by modern digital businesses, most of us still tend to rely on lazy terms such as Big Data without actually delving into precisely how we can use it today. The businesses that are fully aware of this whilst growing at speed are the ones that we can expect to see at the top of the tree for the foreseeable future.

2. Reminds me of a talk by Alex Wissner-Gross on an equation for “intelligence” that it should be viewed as a “physical process that tries to maximize future freedom of action and to avoid constraints in its own future.” (http://www.33rdsquare.com/2013/12/an-equation-for-intelligence.html) as well as De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.

It seems like all things are looking to expand their possibilities of interactions (just maybe beyond our own time scales of understanding) and this next wave of business/infrastructure is along for the ride in that long process.

1. johnbattelle says:

Thank you for the interesting link. Much appreciated

3. FireBlogger says:

Snowden is either a hero or traitor, there’s no in between. And if we made him up no one would believe the story.

4. JG says:

I like the potential/kinetic metaphor, applied to information. Thanks for opening up a new avenue of thought!

1. johnbattelle says:

Thanks JG!

5. William Davis says:

I find your potential/kinetic metaphor a compelling one, and perhaps quite useful in understanding how this information will relate/translate/approach knowledge. Your explanation of the metaphor in relation to practices reminded me of Davis Baird’s 2004 book Thing Knowledge–which draws heavily from Karl Popper’s description of Worlds 1, 2 and 3 . You write that many of the companies listed above, Google, etc., “are in the business of unlocking potential information–turning the physical into information.” Baird’s ideas on physical objects as “knowledge bearers” (or a kind of “scientific knowledge”–the distinction needs a bit of clarification, perhaps on Baird’s part) may serve your own metaphor, and I would be quite interested to see what your take is on the subject (Baird, 2004, pp. 1-4). As a graduate student in philosophy of technology, I find your take on potential information quite illuminating. I look forward to reading more of your ideas on the subject.

1. johnbattelle says:

Thanks! I will check this out for sure. Much appreciated.