Thursday, July 29, 2010

Secret document dumps and gut decision making

It's the volume of paper involved that gets to me in the recently disclosed mass document dump of Afghan war secrets. I understand that the leaker -- whether it was the Army private under suspicion or someone else to be determined -- did not empty a warehouse of documents. He pushed a button -- and the digital equivalent of a pile of paper that would fill a small library was conveyed through the ether to the hidden lair of Wikileaks.

I don't think very many readers will have ever tried to get their minds around much more than a thousand pages -- at least not since they were sentenced to read War and Peace in high school. Sure, there may be tens of thousands of volumes in the local branch library, but you go in looking for Stephen King or Neil Gaiman or Tom Clancy or Sara Paretsky... maybe an armload of books... but not 76,000 pages, much less 76,000 documents.

I had a case once in which I had to manage a huge volume of documents. A huge volume for me, anyway. There were probably over 30,000 pages of documents produced in discovery that I had to keep track of and be able to refer to for particular witnesses and discovery progressed. I bought several cases of binders and punched holes forever and made indexes for each volume. I bought a couple of library carts for the most frequently used binders and before every deposition would push these out of my office and into the conference room. (I usually made choo-choo noises as I went. Dignity. Always dignity.)

Anyway, I'm here to testify that 30,000 pages is a lot of paper -- and difficult for one person to digest.

There are lawyers who might stumble upon this post who would guffaw at me for thinking that 30,000 pages is a lot of paper: There are cases in which hundreds of thousands, even millions, of pages are produced, and and legions of minions are assembled to manage and sort and sift these paper mountains (which, of course, aren't on paper any more at all -- like the Afghan documents, at some point, keeping paper copies becomes too unwieldy and the collections are reduced to bits and bytes). But my point is that there is an individual limit -- only so much paper that even the grindiest, wonkiest lawyer -- or policy analyst -- can handle. As reports are collected from the field -- whether in discovery in sprawling mass tort litigation or from the towns and villages of Afghanistan -- they must be compressed. Summarized. Synthesized. I'm not referring to mere digitizing, although that happens now as well in this modern age. I refer, rather, to the process by which this information is compressed so that the next person up the chain of command can absorb the gist of the information.

Those 76,000 documents dumped on Wikileaks -- and their brother and sister documents (I'm sure there were others) -- had to be squeezed and compressed multiple times before they turned up as... what?... a page or two in the President's morning briefing book? How many levels of compression must there have been before the information even made it out of the military and into the civilian chain of command?

There are so many opportunities, at each choke point, for the person editing to extract only the favorable information, or the information that the editor thinks that his or her superiors wants, so that the end product may bear no resemblance whatsoever to the source data.

I wonder that anyone, in this age of information overload, can presume to make an "informed decision."

I've read recently that research shows that humans retain an instinct for 'gut' decisions. Some people are better than others at these, obviously. But the point of the research, as I understand it, that most people's initial gut decisions are better than their considered opinions after careful study.

I found this research fascinating because of my own experience taking a whole bunch of sample tests before I took the bar exam 30 years ago. I had answer keys to refer to when I was done. I discovered that I might guess wrong on a multiple choice test -- but, if I went back to reconsider my initial guess, and really thought the question through, my second answer was almost invariably wrong. (I tried, and largely failed, at transmitting this epiphany to my children over the years. I called it the "Pillar of Salt" school of test taking, after the Old Testament story of Lot's wife. "Don't look back," I warned the kids, "you may not turn into a pillar of salt, but your second guess will not be better than your first.")

Anyway, sanitized, compressed, refined information edited by all sorts of underlings with their own agendas may yield wholly unreliable conclusions. Our policy makers might be better off going by their 'guts' alone rather than by studying the thoroughly winnowed information that makes it to their desks.

And, whoa nellie, that makes me nervous.

1 comment:

Empress Bee (of the High Sea) said...

i am picturing you like a choo choo. too funny!

smiles, bee