If you missed it last week go online to find Malcolm Gladwell's piece in the New Yorker (Jan 8 issue) about the differences between approaching a collection of facts as a "puzzle" vs. a "mystery."Â Gladwell has been writing in the New Yorker about intelligence failures and successes since 2003.Â He starts here with a description of the trial of Jeffery Skilling (chilling, 24 years in a hard-core prison), outlining the evidence against the management of his company, Enron, and the two different ways it could be viewed: either as a "puzzle" or a "mystery."Â Basically, a puzzle in Gladwell's view is a problem which, with enough persistence and access to accurate information, can be conclusively solved. ("Where is Osama Bin Laden?" is his example.)Â A mystery, on the other hand, requires analysis, conjecture, inference, and a nuanced approach, and may never be definitively answered (Will Iran use nuclear weapons?).
His simple enough distinction has implications for our social media conversation, because as Gladwell notes, "mysteries demand experience and insight."Â Or avatars, perhaps, in tech speak.Â Diviners of mysteries are "batty geniuses" who sit at desks all day and who can interpret great reams of data in recurring patterns or from obscure sources.Â In between, he might have added, playing "World of Warcraft."
Because of the overwhelming amount of information available today, and as Gladwell might have added, the urgency required to make decisions quickly, puzzle solving does not work as well as analysis of mysteries.Â Further, mysteries require a connection with a "user" (my term) to be analyzed.Â In searchable media, algorhythms hasten the process of puzzle solving where a large part of content is available in real time, but they cannot alone provide insight.Â And they cannot be blamed for intelligence failure:Â "Mysteries require that we revisit our list of culprits and be willing the spread the blame accordingly."
But perhaps if social media is to provide any value to society, it will be to determine which of the batty geniuses who sits at their desks all day and pore over information for the rest of us can be trusted.Â Â Once they are tagged and digged by the rest of us.