Monday, December 1, 2014

Oil Prices, Data Privacy and the Price of Information Overload

Information is not knowledge. – Albert Einstein

True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information. – Winston Churchill

As someone who is fascinated with how information is acquired, learned, shared and communicated, I have recently found humor in a little message that appears on the dash every time I start my Toyota Highlander.

The message that is displayed on the console is this:

Drive safely and obey traffic rules.

Most of us who would see this message likely fall into one of three categories.

  1. We are safe, law-abiding drivers already and so the message appears to be redundant.
  2. We are not safe, law-abiding drivers and so we feel the message is irrelevant.
  3. We are so busy in our everyday lives that we may not notice the message at all, even after owning the vehicle for years.

I doubt that very few drivers look at this message, pick up their phone and call someone to excitedly proclaim in a grand moment of revelation that they have just realized that they should drive safely and / or obey traffic rules.  If they do, the person on the other end of the call would likely think they had lost their minds anyway.

In many ways, I find the message that the Toyota engineers so kindly provided to their vehicle owners to be a perfect metaphor for Life itself.  In the constant cacophony of information that seeks to overwhelm us daily, most of us are unwilling or unable to separate that which matters from that which does not, leaving us with information that we believe doesn’t apply to us, is irrelevant to us or which we miss altogether.

It is in this maelstrom of information overload that we call Life that the important nuggets of information, whether it be in our personal, professional, financial, relational or societal lives, slip right by us.

Take for example, the potential impact of $40 per oil barrel projections that were announced last week.  The potential impact on nations and the world itself could be profound and not all of it positive (for example, what happens if a cash-starved Russia gets more antsy as its sources of revenue dwindle further).  Despite the potential for serious trouble, most people are either unaware of the projections, unaware of their impact or don’t pay attention to this type of information at all.

Others get consumed by the ramifications of such an announcement and seek as many sources of analysis as they can find, overloading their brain and proving one or both of these two adages to be true:

An economic forecaster is like a cross-eyed javelin thrower: they don't win many accuracy contests, but they keep the crowd's attention. – Anonymous

Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists. - John Kenneth Galbraith

Or this humorous nugget from

Economics - The science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn't come true today.

How about the poor serving person I freaked out in a restaurant recently when I demonstrated to her how I could compromise her portable debit machine and skim credit / debit card numbers and pins off it from anywhere in the restaurant?  All she worried about was if she would get in trouble if a transaction wasn’t processed correctly, missing the point that every customer in the establishment was at risk.

Or how about the fact that every week for who knows how many weeks in a row now, a senior government, military or energy spokesperson has expressed concern that we face imminent compromise or collapse of our electricity generation / distribution systems.  Of the 18 critical infrastructures that we have that our society relies upon, 17 of them rely upon one – electricity.  Do you know what your Life looks like if electricity disappears for an extended period of time (think “really” extended period of time)?  Someone is trying to tell you something without actually telling you something.

The list goes on.

And so when a disaster occurs in society, in business, in our personal lives, in our finances or in our relationships, we always end up chanting the tired and worn out cliché that hindsight is 20/20.

However, for those who pay attention, foresight is much closer to 20/20 than many realize, as I demonstrated when I predicted the financial collapse of 2008 in this post, Financial Crisis, or when I explained my prediction process to a reporter as I described in The Secret of the “Soothsayer”.

The Bottom Line

There are very few moments when we are truly caught by surprise and in that surprise, find ourselves at the hands of a disaster or missing the opportunity that “got away”.

More often than not, there are plenty of warnings of trouble or highlights of positive opportunity that are being sent to us constantly.

However, I wonder what kind of businesses, families, relationships and world we could create if we were more proactive regarding what information we took in, how we processed it, what we discarded, what we decided to act on and what action we decided to take?

Would we be better at holding ourselves more responsible and accountable for the results that we produce?

Would we be better at holding others, such as elected officials, business and community leaders more responsible and accountable for the results that they produce?

I think we might.

What do you think?

In service and servanthood,


PS I am reminded of the blog post Newfoundland–Should We Just Shoot It And Put It Out Of Its Misery? where I cited data pointing to oil falling to $80 a barrel and the ramifications on provincial budgets.  Certain government officials wrote me to tell me to stop spreading gloom and doom and that oil would never get that low.  As I write this blog, it is around $68 a barrel.

Data doesn’t lie to us.

However, how we choose to interpret it or explain it to others may be a different matter.


  1. It is not the data that lies to us. It is us who lie to ourselves (and each other) because of various forms of bias.

    The Newfoundland government officials, seem to have been guilty of a common ailment among government officials and people generally - optimism bias.

    Cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot gave an interesting TED talk on her theory that the optimism bias may be a matter of hard wiring for most of us.

    1. Hey Doug,

      That was exactly my point in my PS. I agree with you regarding cognitive bias and a natural tendency towards optimism bias although the source of it may be a little suspect when the person delivering it benefits from it!

      Create a great day, my friend.