Sunday, February 08, 2009

The information society and its limits

The breathtaking expansion of the Internet and the sources of information now available on it have served to conjure a cybernetic vision of unlimited growth--growth that can never be slowed for long by lack of physical resources because it is mostly virtual. The Internet has undoubtedly allowed people to find information readily that would previously have taken hours of meticulous searching in a library or might not be found at all.

The vast quantities of information now available require some kind of filtering, and so various filtering services including news aggregators, weblogs, and specialty sites of all kinds have arisen. All of that is to the good. True, much of the information on the Internet is of questionable veracity. And, much of what passes for information not only on the Internet, but also in the broader media is nothing more than polemic dressed up as analysis. And, of course, the sheer volume of it all would be overwhelming were it not mitigated by the available filters or by simply turning away from the computer, the television and the radio.

But so many people cannot or will not turn away for any extended period of time. Instead, they believe they need to be "updated" on a regular basis. I put "updated" in quotes since to me the news seems more or less the same every day with a few widely spaced and prominent exceptions. It is these exceptions that I pay attention to. But most stories fit into rather predictable categories which I label as follows:
  1. Prices are going up (or, more rarely, down).
  2. There's corruption in government. (Who knew?)
  3. The corporations are out to get us.
  4. It's dangerous out there. (Crime stories)
  5. Isn't that weird? (Human interest stories)
  6. GI Joe. (War coverage)
  7. How to lose 10 pounds without dieting. (Service stories)

Perhaps you can think of other categories. And, while stories in some of these categories are indeed important, those stories rarely provide the context or the intelligent analysis required to make them useful. On the other hand, crime stories are usually just sensationalism designed to attract subscribers and viewers.

Putting into the proper context what information we actually do need for something other than aiding and abetting our consumption--for, say, understanding public policy--requires conceptual training that can only come from reading well-written books and articles and engaging with other rigorous minds who challenge our own point of view. That is a much slower training process, and it will never occur at Internet speeds.

Environmental education giant David Orr likes to say that what we lack is "slow" knowledge. It is easy to learn how to take down a whole forest with a chainsaw. That's fast knowledge. But as I wrote in a previous post:

Teaching people the importance of trees in creating and protecting the soil, encouraging biodiversity, preventing runoff, storing carbon and influencing climate is a task that requires time, concentration and reflection. It assumes a body of knowledge about the natural world that most people simply don't have and therefore must acquire. And, it assumes an eye trained to look for subtleties in the natural landscape. Moreover, such learning does not yield the immediate and visible economic benefits of the chainsaw.

But even if we take the time to acquire the slow knowledge we need, we cannot solve the knowledge problem with more information. The world is too complex to comprehend by merely apprehending its parts. And, no human being can see all of the universe or even his or her part of it well enough to give anything but a very fragmentary account. We will always have huge areas of ignorance, particularly about the long-term consequences of the actions we take to reshape the ecosphere to our purposes.

And, even where we believe we have a lot of information--for example, the confident predictions about world oil and natural gas reserves or about the amount of uranium that can be extracted from the Earth's crust--we ought to look not to what we know for confirmation, but to what we don't know for guidance regarding the risks we face. Orr suggests that those lacunae in our knowledge should entreat us to employ wide margins of safety both in our daily actions and even more so in our collective policies.

It is possible, for example, that the optimistic estimates of the world's energy supplies are correct. The consequences of that would be that business as usual could proceed for a few more decades during which we could take a very leisurely attitude toward making the transition to a new energy economy. (I am, of course, setting aside the very serious risks related to climate change in this illustration.) The consequences of being wrong, however, could include catastrophic collapse. Hence, Orr's suggestion that we employ wide margins of safety when acting on what we think we know.

The hubris of the information society is that it imagines that data matter more than understanding and that we are moving closer and closer every day to completing the book of knowledge. The truth is we are creating vast new areas of ignorance. Two examples, one domestic and one industrial, illustrate the problem. Our highly productive modern farming and food production system has allowed the vast majority of people to forego learning anything about plants in their immediate area which are edible. And, since public policy in the United States (but no longer in Europe) puts the onus on the public to prove that a new chemical is harmful before it is banned (rather than putting the onus on industry to prove it is safe), industry releases thousands of new chemicals each year into the environment ignorant of their possible negative effects on humans and on ecosystems.

The most important first step in countering this trend is to recognize it and to act with the heightened sense of attentiveness, care and prudence which that recognition demands.


SoapBoxTech said...

Yes, we praise "intelligence" but have forgotten the importance of tempering intelligence with wisdom.

PeaceFromTrees said...

Glad you mentioned what it takes to educate for forest protection...

Though I must say the frame through which you interpret is of a middle / upper class privilege whose obvious early education was based on the 19th century intuitive skills necessary to source knowledge from Encyclopedia Britanica / compendiums / Classics.

The intuitive skill-set of 21st century children when it comes to sourcing knowledge / learning is far more kinesthtic, as well as far better prepared to navigate the labyrith of an overwhelming supply of electronic data storage.

And just because the Children of today's skill set is different than yours doesn't make their skill set less adequate.

Likewise your cynical categorization of what the primary internet topics are reflects a lack of a modern intuitive skills necessary to source credible online information.

That being said, let's shift the frame and instead talk about how we need to build a bridge between the older and younger generations...

If children of today could better understand your slow-knowledge learning base of many years... And likewise, if you could better intuit how to play a highly complex video game in much the same way I've been astonished to sen four year-olds do... That's what it is going to take to make a better more intelligent world for all.

Of course first and foremost if children do not have: food, shelter, health and a sense of well being, the great growing of wisdom that we are cultivating as global village will go unrealized!

Long live the trees, Deane

Anonymous said...

Kurt Cobb said in effect:

"The more you learn, the less you know..."

PeaceFromTrees said in effect:

"The medium is the message."

Being between the grey haired (Kurt Cobb's picture) and the youthful 4 year old with the video game I say "Stop the world I want to get off".

Since PCs and internet and mobile telephony have taken over our lives in the 80s and 90s the speed of the flood of data has just accelerated life. I cop out, having no mobile telephone and being on vacation unreachable with neither mobile phones nor laptop e-mail contact. I have no car and bike to work.

I must agree that how we process data is critical to how our perceptions work. Say the first people felt themselves a part of the river and their spirit flowed into it and the trees and such. Then our spirit became separate and independent and we had our gods for each function of nature(lightning = Thor, etc.). After this came the mental leap to one God and a mental separation from creation. Generally speaking we create God in our image(Medium is the message).

First we flow with untiy in nature

Secondly everything is functionally separate

Thirdly we are separate (like our Monotheistic concept).

Now we do the same process with our vision of data processing internally and the resulting extrication of meaning.

First we invented speech and became above nature something special like the Gods(no more cave man howl, "oomphh, uggh!")

Reading and writing was invented making us abstract intellectuals, like a higher God. Nature was there to be analyzed, understood, put into boxes and filed away. This was science and monotheism, both part of the same basic way of looking at life.

Now we have become postmodern, returning full circle to the first man. We flow into the data streams we have created forming it into the personality of the persons we are in our blogs and games and chat rooms, becoming and transforming our world like in William Gibson novels.

Early internet and computer technology was for geeks. Later internet and technology generally is totally intuitive for the masses.

Mass alienation as described in many novels from 19th-20th centuries is caused by a lack of connection to a rapidly changing background of technological and the corresponding social changes. People's souls can't keep up with the mental stress, understood intellectually or not. It is rejected by our psychological immune system as foreign.

When a technology is around long enough we transform it to an intuitive part of our lives which we then want to maintain in its present form as a part of our culture. Hence the problem of prying our cold dead hands off the steering wheel of our cars, the exoskeleton of our modern lives in the first world.

We tend to personify objects like primitives. Computers, cars, etc. must be alive, have souls. We do not want to be alone but want children. We want to create and be loved by our creations.

There are these two basic desires, to become one with(melt into / fall in love with) and to separate ourselves(to understand, analyze) from our surroundings. These are female/male, right/left brained tendencies. One generation wings to the left (boomers/hippies "feeling" the change is necessary) and their children(like their GI parents before them) will swing back to the right (build a better mousetrap to save the universe from ecodisaster).

So to be very trite, I must say as my old father would have "It's just a phase he's going through" (referring to us kids as teens in 70s-80s). In my case I would be referring to the problems we think are such a big deal now with no possible solutions or else easy solutions out of the box depending on who you are.

Jonathan Callahan said...


I agree whole heartedly with your description of a world awash in news and opinion of questionable veracity.

Coming from the science world I see exactly the same issues in big government agencies like NOAA and NASA. Where 20 years ago the main problem was too little data, today the problem is too much data.

I am of the optimistic opinion, however, that technology can also be harnessed to help us make the transitions from data to information to knowledge and perhaps even understanding and wisdom.

The Energy Export Databrowser is an example of how internet technology can empower citizens to conduct their own data-intense research into peak-oil without needing any particular expertise.

The databrowser provides no verbal commentary as the data graphics tell the story on their own, converting data into information.

The simple user interface in the databrowser allows users to ask questions and get immediate answers, helping them convert the information they are receiving into knowledge of the global energy situation.

Distribution of information has long been in the hands of the media elite. The current technology-enhanced democratization of publishing has of course led to a flood of words on the internet that one must navigate. But islands of clear presentation and thinking are beginning to emerge and I am optimistic that many people are smart enough to recognize such clarity when they see it.