TED@SXSWi

JP Rangaswami: Information is food

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How do we consume data? At TED@SXSWi, technologist JP Rangaswami muses on our relationship to information, and offers a surprising and sharp insight: we treat it like food.

- Technologist
JP Rangaswami thinks deeply (and hilariously) about disruptive data. Full bio

I love my food.
00:15
And I love information.
00:17
My children usually tell me
00:20
that one of those passions is a little more apparent than the other.
00:23
(Laughter)
00:27
But what I want to do in the next eight minutes or so
00:29
is to take you through how those passions developed,
00:31
the point in my life when the two passions merged,
00:33
the journey of learning that took place from that point.
00:37
And one idea I want to leave you with today
00:42
is what would would happen differently in your life
00:44
if you saw information the way you saw food?
00:47
I was born in Calcutta --
00:52
a family where my father and his father before him
00:54
were journalists,
00:58
and they wrote magazines in the English language.
00:59
That was the family business.
01:02
And as a result of that,
01:05
I grew up with books everywhere around the house.
01:06
And I mean books everywhere around the house.
01:09
And that's actually a shop in Calcutta,
01:13
but it's a place where we like our books.
01:15
In fact, I've got 38,000 of them now
01:19
and no Kindle in sight.
01:22
But growing up as a child with the books around everywhere,
01:25
with people to talk to about those books,
01:30
this wasn't a sort of slightly learned thing.
01:33
By the time I was 18, I had a deep passion for books.
01:36
It wasn't the only passion I had.
01:39
I was a South Indian
01:42
brought up in Bengal.
01:44
And two of the things about Bengal:
01:46
they like their savory dishes
01:48
and they like their sweets.
01:51
So by the time I grew up,
01:53
again, I had a well-established passion for food.
01:54
Now I was growing up in the late '60s and early '70s,
01:58
and there were a number of other passions I was also interested in,
02:01
but these two were the ones that differentiated me.
02:05
(Laughter)
02:08
And then life was fine, dandy.
02:09
Everything was okay,
02:12
until I got to about the age of 26,
02:14
and I went to a movie called "Short Circuit."
02:18
Oh, some of you have seen it.
02:21
And apparently it's being remade right now
02:23
and it's going to be coming out next year.
02:27
It's the story of this experimental robot
02:29
which got electrocuted and found a life.
02:32
And as it ran, this thing was saying, "Give me input. Give me input."
02:35
And I suddenly realized that for a robot
02:39
both information as well as food
02:42
were the same thing.
02:45
Energy came to it in some form or shape,
02:47
data came to it in some form or shape.
02:50
And I began to think,
02:52
I wonder what it would be like
02:55
to start imagining myself
02:56
as if energy and information were the two things I had as input --
02:59
as if food and information were similar in some form or shape.
03:03
I started doing some research then, and this was the 25-year journey,
03:07
and started finding out
03:11
that actually human beings as primates
03:12
have far smaller stomachs
03:16
than should be the size for our body weight
03:18
and far larger brains.
03:22
And as I went to research that even further,
03:25
I got to a point where I discovered something
03:28
called the expensive tissue hypothesis.
03:32
That actually for a given body mass of a primate
03:35
the metabolic rate was static.
03:39
What changed was the balance of the tissues available.
03:42
And two of the most expensive tissues in our human body
03:45
are nervous tissue and digestive tissue.
03:49
And what transpired was that people had put forward a hypothesis
03:53
that was apparently coming up with some fabulous results by about 1995.
03:57
It's a lady named Leslie Aiello.
04:01
And the paper then suggested that you traded one for the other.
04:04
If you wanted your brain for a particular body mass to be large,
04:09
you had to live with a smaller gut.
04:13
That then set me off completely
04:16
to say, Okay, these two are connected.
04:19
So I looked at the cultivation of information as if it were food
04:22
and said, So we were hunter-gathers of information.
04:26
We moved from that to becoming farmers and cultivators of information.
04:29
Does that really explain what we're seeing
04:33
with the intellectual property battles nowadays?
04:35
Because those people who were hunter-gatherers in origin
04:37
wanted to be free and roam and pick up information as they wanted,
04:41
and those that were in the business of farming information
04:44
wanted to build fences around it,
04:47
create ownership and wealth and structure and settlement.
04:49
So there was always going to be a tension within that.
04:53
And everything I saw in the cultivation
04:56
said there were huge fights amongst the foodies
04:58
between the cultivators and the hunter-gatherers.
05:01
And this is happening here.
05:03
When I moved to preparation, this same thing was true,
05:05
expect that there were two schools.
05:08
One group of people said you can distill your information,
05:10
you can extract value, separate it and serve it up,
05:14
while another group turned around
05:17
and said no, no you can ferment it.
05:19
You bring it all together and mash it up
05:20
and the value emerges that way.
05:23
The same is again true with information.
05:25
But consumption was where it started getting really enjoyable.
05:28
Because what I began to see then
05:32
was there were so many different ways people would consume this.
05:34
They'd buy it from the shop as raw ingredients.
05:37
Do you cook it? Do you have it served to you?
05:40
Do you go to a restaurant?
05:42
The same is true every time as I started thinking about information.
05:44
The analogies were getting crazy --
05:47
that information had sell-by dates,
05:50
that people had misused information that wasn't dated properly
05:53
and could really make an effect on the stock market,
05:57
on corporate values, etc.
05:59
And by this time I was hooked.
06:01
And this is about 23 years into this process.
06:04
And I began to start thinking of myself
06:07
as we start having mash-ups of fact and fiction,
06:09
docu-dramas, mockumentaries, whatever you call it.
06:12
Are we going to reach the stage
06:16
where information has a percentage for fact associated with it?
06:17
We start labeling information for the fact percentage?
06:22
Are we going to start looking at what happens
06:25
when your information source is turned off, as a famine?
06:28
Which brings me to the final element of this.
06:32
Clay Shirky once stated that there is no such animal as information overload,
06:34
there is only filter failure.
06:37
I put it to you that information,
06:40
if viewed from the point of food,
06:43
is never a production issue; you never speak of food overload.
06:46
Fundamentally it's a consumption issue.
06:49
And we have to start thinking
06:52
about how we create diets within ourselves, exercise within ourselves,
06:54
to have the faculties to be able to deal with information,
06:59
to have the labeling to be able to do it responsibly.
07:02
In fact, when I saw "Supersize Me," I starting thinking of saying,
07:05
What would happen
07:09
if an individual had 31 days nonstop Fox News?
07:11
(Laughter)
07:15
Would there be time to be able to work with it?
07:17
So you start really understanding
07:20
that you can have diseases, toxins, a need to balance your diet,
07:23
and once you start looking, and from that point on,
07:29
everything I have done in terms of the consumption of information,
07:32
the production of information, the preparation of information,
07:35
I've looked at from the viewpoint of food.
07:39
It has probably not helped my waistline any
07:42
because I like practicing on both sides.
07:45
But I'd like to leave you with just that question:
07:47
If you began to think of all the information that you consume
07:51
the way you think of food,
07:54
what would you do differently?
07:56
Thank you very much for your time.
07:57
(Applause)
08:00
Translated by Timothy Covell
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

JP Rangaswami - Technologist
JP Rangaswami thinks deeply (and hilariously) about disruptive data.

Why you should listen

With a background in economics and journalism, JP Rangaswami has been a technology innovator and chief information officer for many leading financial firms. As an advocate for open source and disruptive technologies, Rangaswami has been a leading force in the success of multiple startups, including School of Everything, Salesforce.com and Ribbit. He blogs (unmissably) at Confused of Calcutta.