Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

The problem of incomplete quotations

You've probably heard phrases like “Information wants to be free”, or “What gets measured gets managed” before, usually to justify a particular political decision or business process, but they have slipped into more general use. Here's the problem: both of them are incomplete.

“Information wants to be free” comes from Stewart Brand. Cory Doctorow tells the story well in his awesome book Information Doesn't Want to be Free, which is vital reading for anyone interested in copyright, intellectual property, and especially those as the apply to the Internet.

“BACK IN 1984, Stewart Brand—founder of the Whole Earth Catalog—had a public conversation with Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak at the first Hackers Conference. There, Brand uttered a few dozen famous words:
“On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Cory goes on to make the point that information's desires are irrelevant, but that's another story (go read the book!). You can see from this excerpt that the original thought is not a moral point, it's an economic one: information wants to be free because the cost of getting it out is getting lower” not “because it ought to be free on principle.”

I would point out here that I don't sell the information I have about the arts I practice. I sell my time when teaching, and the time and money that goes into my books; but the Art itself is free, because I see it as your natural birthright. This is why I distribute all my original source material (photos of old fencing books mostly), free.

“What gets measured gets managed” is perhaps the most famous thing that Peter Drucker ever wrote (and he's probably the most famous business theorist in the world). The problem is that there is no evidence that he actually wrote that (if you find it in one of his books, please do let me know!). The first version of this idea that I can find is from the scientist Lord Kelvin, who said this in a speech in May 1883:

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

This makes perfect sense for a physicist, but is not much use to the average business owner, I would say, who is probably not interested in advancing to the stage of science. The other major problem with the quote as it stands is that it ought to come with the corollary: “whether it needs to be or not”. In other words, a fetish for measuring stuff can very easily lead you into quantitive analysis of entirely the wrong things. For instance, if you are selling books over the internet, as I do, then the major metrics are: traffic to the sale site; conversion rate (what proportion of that traffic actually buy); and the revenue generated from those sales minus the cost of generating that traffic. That's it. The weak link is almost always the conversion rate, and it's usually more useful to improve that than to just increase traffic. Tracking (for example) Facebook shares and likes is pointless, as the books aren't bought on Facebook. Metrics that might be useful for an ice-cream van (such as the weather) are entirely irrelevant to me, so I don't track them. How do you know what should be measured? My yardstick is this: will this data affect my decisions directly? If not, then I don't track it. The only purpose of data is to drive decisions.

It is frighteningly easy for a pithy quote to become embedded in your mind, driving thoughts and actions. I highly recommend examining the source and context for any such mantras you may have in your life, to make sure they are drivers that you actually want.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

One Response

  1. “The only purpose of data is to drive decisions.” Good business intelligence perspective there. As I’m building a BI system right now I keep reminding my client of this – if something won’t impact decisions, it doesn’t belong, and adding things that don’t belong actually detracts from the things that do add value.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You May Also Like

Thoughts on Sports

For the first time in my life, on Sunday night I actually, deliberately, watched a

Recent Posts

Max Your Lunge

I wrote Max Your Lunge in 2007, long before this blog was conceived. It’s past