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The Hippocratic Oath for an Age of Data Deluge

Subtract, Don't Add!


We are drowning in an ocean-like deluge of data, much of it misleading, some of it toxic. The state of affairs today makes the phrase “information overload” sound almost quaint — an artifact of yesteryear.

It’s no surprise that some of the most successful businesses in the world today make their gazillions by storing, tracking, and sifting through the shapeless sludge. By reshuffling and reorganizing it into something potentially useful. By seeking (or imposing) the relevant pattern, trying to isolate the deeper significance (if any), and then framing and selling that bit to interested parties (Ka-ching!)

Good on them. We’d have long ago lost our minds to the vapors without them — paralyzed by the expanding sewage-water universe of random information.

Meanwhile, the dizzying array of data sources and information streams and nattering nabobs feeding the deluge continue to multiply and fragment beyond counting. And the ocean of sludge expands. Grows bottomlessly deeper.

What is a responsible person to do in the face of such a challenge? Can a humble individual alone help battle back the oozing tide?

I say we can. We can! We can, because we must. What’s the alternative?

Start small: take the Hippocratic Oath for the age of data deluge. First do no wrong! Step back from the edge. Take a deep breath. If possible, keep silent.  Meditate on a sunset.

Whatever you do, don’t add more junk to the pile. If you can avoid saying it or writing it, do. (This is not always possible; look at what I’m doing now.)

Remember the prevailing paradox of the time: we now add value by subtracting. By taking away. By extracting and connecting. By cutting through — instead of adding to — the infinite pile of crap.

Keep your message simple and clear. Get to the point.

An ambassador I once worked for asked me to redraft a speech I had prepared for her on subject Y, saying: “Please bring this down to the 10th Grade level. There are too many big words. Nobody will listen or understand the way it’s written now.” (Note: She, not I, had argued cases before the Supreme Court.)

Point taken. Even when the subject matter is weighty and the audience high-caliber, perhaps especially in such cases, keep it simple and clean. No gimmicks or extra dollops. Pure plain style. 

Jonathan Swift himself tested his drafts with the servants. (That was another time.) If they didn’t understand, he went back to rewrite. 

Be part of the solution, not the problem. If you can avoid saying or writing it, do; if you can’t, then keep it simple. Avoid piling on. Add value by subtracting.

And keep the rest to yourself.

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