Last summer, social media channels brought us stunning firsthand views of the violence, destruction, and extraordinary beauty of Hawaii’s erupting Kilauea volcano. Fast moving lava flowed from the summit crater through many underground tunnels and eruption vents. From May until August, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) provided daily updates of the amount of lava that was spreading across the island. By the time the eruption ended in August 2018, more than a mile of coastline was added along the big island’s southeast coast.
On a recent trip to Hawaii, I learned that Kilauea had been erupting continuously since 1983. This fact is less known and not widely reported. Even with almost four months of continual eruption last summer, only 1% of the island was impacted. The volcanic activity was not that unusual, yet this event generated fear and misinformation about spewing ash, red hot lava flow, and toxic air. Social media and traditional media spread the news, causing unnecessary fear and canceled or delayed travel plans.
The decrease in tourism severely impacted the Big Island’s economy. If that wasn’t problematic enough – the truth behind this volcano made the impact even more problematic. You see, this volcano had been active nonstop for 35 years. It wasn’t until more than 700 homes were destroyed (many valued over $1M) that Kilauea’s activities became newsworthy globally. The news that spread was more influenced by human perception than actual, measurable truth. Partial blame can be placed on inaccurate, lazy, or even purposeful manipulative reporting. Our own behavior as news connoisseurs is also a culprit.
How many of us merely accept the truth by a passive intake of “news” sources without intentionally challenging the reality of information presented by cable news and online sources?
The Reality About Volcanoes
Volcanoes are closely monitored. Massive amounts of data are collected in real-time from multiple sources. A collaborative network of scientific organizations bring together a variety of techniques to hear and see important activity inside a volcano, such as earthquake activity, ground movement, volcanic gas release, and water chemistry The National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) is one of these organizations. The NEIC is responsible for determining and disseminating as rapidly and accurately as possible, the location and size of all significant earthquakes that occur worldwide. The organization has scientific instrumentation located strategically around the world to monitor and measure earthquake activity caused by the movement of volcanic magma. The NEIC has created an extensive seismic database that serves as a foundation for scientific research about how to mitigate the risks of earthquakes and volcanoes.
A quick search of the NEIC database surprised me. At the time of the writing of this post, on the island of Hawaii alone, there have been three earthquakes in the past 24 hours, 69 in the past seven days, 220 in the past 30 days and 40,466 in the past 365 days. The amount and precision of the data are astonishing. That this database exists for scientists and researchers to get to the truth about potential risks is reassuring. That a curious layperson seeking validation can find the authoritative data source is empowering – and frustrating – because so few of us would take that step.
“Data science takes a natural and intuitive human process—spotting patterns and making sense of them—and injects it with steroids, potentially showing us that the world works in a completely different way from how we thought it did.”
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data,
and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are
Data Flows Like Magma Below the Surface
Few would argue against the point that data is like the magma in a volcano – constantly flowing just beneath the surface, shaping the climate and structure of the world in which we live. Billions of sensors are embedded in almost every product, machinery, and structure. Even the beach towels I was given to use while in Hawaii had small sensors woven into the fabric to track which guests returned the towels and to charge the people who kept them.
Millions of sensors that collect data are distributed across networks, creating knowledge and understanding of the world. Cisco forecasts annual global IP data traffic worldwide is expected to reach 4.8 zettabytes per year by 2022. (A zettabyte it is 1 with 21 zeros behind it. It is hard for most of us to comprehend what this even means.)
Even if we can’t wrap our minds around the magnitude of a zettabyte, we can understand that our access and reliance on data have thrust us into a time of seemingly inescapable transparency of information. Nonetheless, we continue to struggle with discerning actual truth from perception.
Reflecting on the situation in Kilauea, how is the signal-to-noise ratio changing with the deluge of information? How much can we trust what we are told? Who do we trust to tell us the truth? And what are our responsibilities in seeking the truth?
Deliberate or not, we have come to rely on several filters or criteria to decide what is true.
We assume conventional wisdom or the belief that because everyone believes “X” is true, it must be true. Consensus views are created at lightning speed across Facebook without much consideration of the validity of the information.
We accept truth based on the authority of who delivers the information as truth. But with such fierce competition among our “news” sources to get and keep our attention, is there such a position of authority anymore? How do we know sources positioned as authoritative are delivering truth? How can we be confident that they are not trying (intentionally or unintentionally) to manipulate us with tantalizing information? Unless we deliberately search out diverse perspectives on a topic or issue, how can we determine what the truth is?
Tried and true information – those ‘facts’ that have stood the test of time – are passed off as truths. However, the volume of data and the speed with which it grows is making it harder to identify what information is still true and what information has become obsolete Unless we are constantly keeping up with new scientific discoveries or validated details about current events, can we actually discern?
While there are other tests of truth, these are a few of the most commonly used by individuals and organizations. Each filter warrants a discussion, of course, but for our purposes, they offer a profile or a collective confirmation mechanism.
As leaders in this time when data flows ceaselessly, sometimes destructively, it’s critical that we monitor constantly but know how to separate the subjective and perceived truths from those we can monitor, measure, and validate as fact. A good first step is to commit to having a dialog about what criteria we can – and should – use or develop to meet our future needs in determining what is true. From there, we also should rethink our tools – if cable news is no longer a reliable source, perhaps we all must become familiar with data science. It’s in the facts that we will build the ability to truly understand what is going on with the world around us.
 Revolutionary Wealth, How it will be created and how it will change our lives, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, 2006
Deborah Westphal is a passionate humanist who has guided our era’s top minds and leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections and resilience for a secure and sound future. Her career spans more than 30 years in government agencies and Fortune 100 companies, and on virtually every continent. In 1999, Alvin Toffler tapped her as one of the founding members of his eponymous consulting firm, Toffler Associates. From 2007 through 2018, she served as the firm’s CEO and has since contributed her experience and knowledge as a member of the board. Through her work, she has guided notable organizations including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Marriott, U.S. Air Force, Baxter International, Bayer, Heinz, Microsoft, Koppers, PPG, DARPA, National Security Agency, Loral Space Systems, NASA, Qwest, Verizon, and Westinghouse. Deborah’s empathetic and thought-provoking style helps readers spot patterns that signify future risks and opportunities. She’s a sought-after speaker and writer who provided the Foreword to After Shock. Her book, Convergence: Technology, Business, and the Human-Centric Future, was published in May 2021 by Unnamed Press. Find her at deborahwestphal.com.
Toffler Associates is a future-focused strategic advisory firm. Our Future Proof® business consulting approach helps global leaders understand how future shifts impact current decisions so they can take advantage of opportunity, manage risk, and create future value.
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