Thursday, March 28, 2013

Two Simple Questions That Might Just Give You Fits

Two seemingly simple questions.   What is information?  What is its relation to reality?   Give them a shot.  You could win ten grand.  I'm not competing but questions like this do almost demand answers.

Surely information is, in essence, a conveyance.  It is the transmission of something - a thought, an idea, an image - to one or more sensory receptors.   Touch can be a conveyance of information.   So too can smell or taste.  We receive information from sound as well as from images.

In its classical iteration, information had an essentially tutorial connotation.  It was a form of instruction, a transmission of knowledge.  

Information, to be conveyed, must be arranged in forms common to the conveyor and the recipient.   It requires some measure of shared experience or knowledge such as a language or common grasp of mathematical or physical states.   Deprived of linguistic commonality we can be quickly reduced, despite all our shared knowledge and experience, to a game of Charades, a trial and error guessing game.

In today's society information is often streamed.  There are so many communications options that we choose to receive information in forms that suit our narrow interests or purposes or beliefs.   We look for conformal information, information that reinforces what we prefer to learn and believe.  In the process, we severely narrow our outlook and exclude information not on the basis of its relevance but out of preference.

As Tim Flannery notes in his recent book, Here on Earth, we in the developed world are evolving into a society of high-functioning simpletons where we become very good at just one or two things and dependent on others to provide all the other goods and services we require just to live from day to day.   As individuals, most of us are quite incapable of feeding ourselves or of defending ourselves, our families and our property, or repairing our shelter and vehicles, just about anything.

We take in immense volumes of information, most of it purely vocational and with limited social context.   This managed information stream leaves us highly capable in a narrow context and even more highly dependent and vulnerable in the broader context of human life.   Flannery unfavourably contrasts us with the New Guinea tribesman who must, at any moment, be able to protect his family and tribe against venomous and predatory wildlife, build and repair his own home, tend to his own injuries, hunt his food and gather root vegetables, defend his tribe against rivals and regulate his family and community.   That is the sort of "whole of brain" existence we have long abandoned in joining our human ant colony.

Information in modern society has become commodified as never before, an inevitable incident of a powerfully concentrated, corporate mass media cartel.   Information, in the sense of news, is generally something in the public domain, facts that cannot be owned and denied others.   This poses a challenge the cartel has sought to overcome.

When the earthquake hits, everyone is free to write about it.  A particular story can be copyrighted but not the event itself.  The corporate media have found ways around this.   News itself may be public domain and, hence, not particularly marketable, but news spun and transformed into messaging adds an advertorial or public relations quality to it that is truly marketable.   In this way corporate media and unprincipled regulators become mutually corrupting, each extracting a valuable benefit from the other with the price to be paid by a third party, the public at whom the messaging is aimed.

Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, wryly observed that people who do not read newspapers are uninformed while those who do read newspapers are misinformed.   That is the devilish quality of information - the malevolent purposes to which it so readily lends itself.

Now to the second question, how does information relate to reality?

Reality is much harder to define for the very act of defining it transforms reality into a different state, one that bears the imprint of all one's knowledge, all one's ignorance, all of one's experience and biases, fears, preferences and prejudices.

No two people can ever see reality quite the same way.   We can get very close or, as we see far too regularly today, we can look at reality and see it much differently from one to another.

The first and most vexing aspect of reality is that we don't understand it and the more we try the more elusive reality can become.

One might assume that reality, in its purest and most identifiable form, inhabits the world of mathematics and physical science.  That would be a false assumption.

Here's a question.   Can reality exist without time?  If so, we're in trouble.  I once listened to an interview with a U.S. Navy Commander who was in charge of the American's atomic clock at the Naval Observatory.   This guy was basically the timekeeper for the world.   Yet he freely volunteered that neither he nor anyone else could prove that time existed or, if it does, just what it is.  In the span of fifteen, perhaps twenty seconds, this fellow quite convincingly made his point.  Scientific American, I believe, devoted almost an entire edition to this question a year or two ago.

Reality opens both scientific and philosophical challenges to its existence.

René Descartes decided to work out what he was sure he knew. Legend has it that he climbed into a large stove to do so in warmth and solitude. He emerged declaring that the only thing he knew was that there was something that was doubting everything.

The logical conclusion of Descartes’s doubt is solipsism, the conviction that one’s own consciousness is all there is. It’s an idea that is difficult to refute.

Perhaps reality is simply knowledge, what Plato described as "justified true belief."   That would certainly be a working definition that avoids the philosophical tar pits from which, once falling in, you can never hope to emerge.  It's also the only definition that accommodates exploration of the relationship between reality and information.

In the construct of reality being the result of justified true belief then information, of specific varieties, is essential.   Those who take existence "on faith" (like our Conservative government and its fundamentalist ruler) dispense with the need for justified true belief.  To them reality is what they choose to believe it is, not what can be justifiably shown to be true.  Their world greatly discounts science and fact.    When you amputate truth from reality, you're left with the mutilated corpse of fantasy, blind hope and wishful, magical thinking.

Information then, in its purest form, purged as much as possible of bias, prejudice, fears and ignorance, must be the cornerstone of any functioning reality.   Whether reality actually exists no one can say but we have to accept that it does because the alternative would be unimaginably horrific.

But for information to play its fullest role in maintaining the health of a functional reality, it's up to us to insist that the information we accept is subject to the most grueling scrutiny and capable of the highest proof we can achieve.   With each passing year that means filtering out and discarding more of the suspect information that continues to grow and fill our consciousness.   We have to become more vigilant and more disciplined in vetting the information we accept in our lives, the facts we permit to inform our reality.

Certainly as never before in my lifetime today we must strive to safeguard genuine information from the onslaught of contrivance and manipulation.   Societies do not become detached from reality by accident.


karen said...

"Information then, in its purest form, purged as much as possible of bias, prejudice, fears and ignorance, must be the cornerstone of any functioning reality. "

Is purging it of these things possible? I think of these things as our lenses. We all see the world through a unique lens that is ground, clarified and dirtied by our experience, our upbringing, our biology. No matter how I try to be objective (whatever that is), I have some biases. I can seek out new information or experiences which may alter my view, but can I ever know that I have removed any bias? Have I widened my view or narrowed it?

This is an interesting idea to wrestle with.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi Karen. Thanks for the DVD.

Is purging of these filters possible? Yes, to an extent. You can never exclude them entirely but you must try your best and recognize your fallibility. If you don't make a concerted, disciplined and vigilant effort to recognize and purge these influences you wind up with something like Sun TV or FOX News or the gullibility of their audiences.

This is not something exclusive to the Right although the centre and left do tend to be more grounded in fact than in belief.

Yes, these are fascinating questions which can easily lead into endless side channels of thought.

Again, Karen, many thanks for the DVD.

Al said...

Nice post.
Tough to classify under my current reality filter but flagged for bookmarking.
Reality is what we observe through our senses & tools, but once we observe we change that reality.
It's so much better than thinking about pandas and pipelines though.

Anonymous said...

karen said...

You're welcome for the DVD. I thought it was a good presentation, although enjoy is not really the word I would use for it. I hope you think so too.

Anonymous said...
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