Information Paradox - The More Information We have, The Less We Know
There is a utopian dream buried at the heart of our stories about technology, especially the technology that creates, stores and transmits information. A dream that we will one day have enough information at our disposal to make perfect choices and to create a fair and just society. The thing is, I love the idea of this vision, but our everyday experience suggests that we are not transitioning toward an information utopia. Rather, we are racing toward an information paradox, where the more information we have, the less we seem to know. This puts a lot of pressure on us to think about how we design our information creation, sharing and management systems. Let’s unpack this a little.
To understand what we’ve gained and lost in our rush to information, I think it’s valauble to compare a past paradigm shift in the creation and transmission of information, specifically the rise of the printed book. The invention of practical printing, by the tinkerer and innovator Johannes Gutenburg changed the face of Europe by making organised information available in a higher volume than at any other point in history. More books were printed in Europe in the eighty years that followed the press, than in the previous 1,000 years.
This rush of information set the stage for the political, scientific and industrial revolutions that followed. The spread of ideas, liberated from the hands of a few to many was instrumental in the transformation of a culture. We shifted from a localised culture, built on superstition to one that began to share globalised concepts and a common understanding.
What is interesting in the rise of the book (which is taken to include pamphlets, journals, manifestos, etc.) is just how much a book’s physical form affects how it is used and produced. Even as methods of mass production or “print on demand” make books a plentiful resource, there are still limitations on how quickly and how many can be made. There is friction and lag associated with production. It isn’t instantaneous or effortless.
Books also have specific affordances that shape how they are distributed, stored and used. Their physical nature makes them inherently self-limiting. You can only pick up and read one book at a time. Putting it down and picking up another takes time and effort. There is friction in the action. This encourages a slower and more effortful consumption. The physicality of printed materials also makes them more private. People can obtain a book, read it in private or small groups, forming opinions and reactions without having their access observed.
Nearly 600 years since Gutenberg liberated the printed word, digital information exploded with the trifecta of the computer, the internet and the mobile. In making information digital, we’ve fundamentally changed the reach, volume, speed and quality of information. When compared to the thousands of books produced in the years that followed the printing press, we are making more information each year than made in all of human history. An assessment in 2018 proposed that 90% of the information present in the world was created in the last two years. That’s 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created per day.
The thing is, neither the technologies that carry the information, nor the information itself is neutral. It never is and never was. Though the original spread of the book in Europe appears egalitarian, as more books were produced, the scholars, upper class and generally more highly educated citizens of Europe reacted very badly to the ever increasing amounts of information available. Anne Blair, a professor of history at Harvard University and author of ”Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, cites Erasmus, who bemoaned the growth of books deep in the 16th Century,
“…fill the world with pamphlets and books that are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their goodness…”
Books were not neutral. They inspired change, challenged existing social orders and spread new ideas. Modern information networks are not neutral either. The ’cloud’ as we like to call it, is not a nebulous natural atmospheric occurrence. It is very much owned and/or controlled by the organisations that invest in it, make it and monitor it. Given we are using our social networks, news systems and search engines to guide our behaviour, this makes it so much easier to conduct information warfare. It is possible to use fast, emotive and high-volume information to mislead or confuse. Controlling people’s sources of information controls their behaviour. This is the opposite of any ideal of direct or representative democracy where individuals make informed choices.
The first response of a technologist to a seemingly technological problem is usually more technology. The problem is that in the information arms race, it seems easier to create systems that either manufacture or transmit information than to make systems that synthesise or make sense of it. Machine learning systems can now write their own news articles, create their own pictures, memes, movies and even art. Chat tools meant to replace past systems of communication like email, create more communications over longer periods of the workday, not less. Social networks encourage the creation of low grade content on their networks, not effortful or better synthesised content.
These networks tend to favour speed, volume and reach over the quality of information. After all, it takes time and effort to produce quality and in many cases it does not benefit the creator relative to the cost. This creates a constant obsolescence of information that becomes harder and harder to keep up with. After all, as humans, we haven’t changed as quickly as our technologies have evolved. We still have a fundamentally finite capacity to process all the information that saturates our every day life.
So in response to the overflow, we start optimising. We react more quickly with whatever is front of mind. We choose things based on emotional cues rather then reasoned arguments. Like deciding whether we like someone’s social or political policies based on whether we like them. We rationalise our choice after the fact to give it a thin veneer of logic. We start relying more on group norms then our own sense of values. Even worse, we assume the data we actually depend on (like laws) may is more secure in the fast growing network then it actually is. When in reality digital data is just as fragile, if not more fragile then we realise.
This isn’t working towards an age of unified purpose and ideals, but an age of ever smaller, shallower and more rabid echo chambers. Nicholas Carr in ‘The Shallows’ highlights the opposite of this narrow information consumption when he notes when people read books, “The reader becomes the book.”
I think there are design choices that we can make. For example, the social networks that are responsible for generating, sharing and remixing so much of our information need to be totally rethought. They are rotten to the core of their advertising driven business models. If they are to serve as such a crucial source of information and forum for debating it, they must be paid for by the people and structured in a way to encourage the productive clash of ideas.
A counter argument is that we don’t have too much information, we have poor filters. There may be some element of truth to that. However, building better technological filters requires us to fundamentally rethink how we value information. Valuing information based on its surface attraction is the same as valuing sugarcoated candy over an apple. Sure, one tastes more sweet up front, but there are consequences later.
The deepest choice of all may be with us. It may be on us to choose to step back from the shallow, simple and reactive pieces of information that swirl around us in favour of a deeper and more considered approach to how we generate, manage, share and most crucially, consume information.
Carr, Nicholas (2010) The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Read, Think and Remember. Atlantic Books: Great Britain.
Bridle, James (2018) New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. Verso: UK.
Silver, Nate (2007) The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction. Penguin: UK.
Moveable Type Photo by Da Nina on Unsplash.