Our relationship with information might be broken – but not in the way that you think

Life, information and complexity are inherently linked. I never truly understood this until my podcast interview with Big History pioneer David Christian (which will be published on Mid July on...

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July 1, 2020
Living organisms have purpose and goals in the sense that they seem to try to do two very specific things: survive and reproduce. And to survive and reproduce, you need information, even at the most basic levels of life. To offer an example of the simplest use: if an E. coli bacteria figures out that there's something bad ahead, it will change direction in order to survive.
Because of natural selection, the organisms that are best at using information in a way that allows them to better survive and reproduce, will pass on those genes from generation to generation. As time passes by, you get larger and more complex organisms and the task of survival requires more information. The result is that these organisms evolve with more powerful mechanisms for acquiring information, storing information, assessing that information, and then acting on the basis of that information.

In short: life “feeds” on information, and as time goes by, the organisms that are best at dealing with information become the predominant ones, pass on their genes and each consequent generation becomes better at it. Humans are extra special here in the way that we introduced the sharing of knowledge and collective learning which allowed us to accumulate even more information and evolve to become the most powerful of species.

It’s pretty safe to say that our fruitful relationship with information lies at the very roots of human civilization, its success (well, depending on which areas, of course) and its growing complexity.

The invention of information technology might change that.

As societal structures scaled, they became increasingly connected (through increasingly faster global forms of transportation like waterways, railways, highways and airways), knowledgeable and complex. So smart humans invented tools to help them deal with the ever growing amount of information they needed to mine in order to survive in this evolved umwelt.

After my conversation with David, I started wondering about what that might signify on the most fundamental of levels and this is what occurred to me:

  1. We have started to outsource the (information-processing) characteristic that has made humanity so powerful
  2. This information is the energy that drives the Information Technology revolution, just like electricity and oil were the energy sources of the former revolutions - but is that energy source really as unlimited as we presume?

Outsourcing the management of our power source

First of all, what we know about the world, what we invent and how the world is shaped are all changing so fast that it seems to be making very little sense to keep memorizing and storing facts and knowledge in our heads. It’s increasingly about adapting to a fast changing world through a continuous process of learning and unlearning rather than memorizing and reusing. (One of our thought leaders, Heather E. McGowan has written a fantastic book about that, by the way.) But the consequence of this has been that our relationship with information has become increasingly volatile. Of course, we still process information all the time in our daily lives to help us make the best decisions for survival: when to cross the street, when to eat, when to put on sunscreen etc. But we are also increasingly basing – both simple and complex - decisions (about buying, health, managing, leadership…) on information that was not processed by ourselves.

Second, the fact that we are outsourcing the ballpark of the processing of information to another entity outside ourselves, means that said entity is becoming increasingly complex and more informed. We simply have to compare Deepmind’s Alphago with Dietrich Gunther Prinz’ 1951 chess program to understand how true this is. So, this is basically the first time since humanity’s dawn that something is staring to have a closer and - in a lot of aspects - more developed relationship with information than us. As stated above, it was exactly that tight relationship that allowed us to become better at surviving, and allowed us to evolve into an increasingly intelligent and powerful race. One could say (I’m not saying that this proves my theory right but it’s pretty striking) that we have indeed become worse at surviving in several fundamental ways, if we look at increasingly wicked problems like global warming, pandemics, water shortage and extreme inequality.

Now, this gap between us and our power source - with technology as the middle ‘man’ - might not be so bad if all of us understood what technology was exactly doing. But, as Carl Sagan so elegantly put 25 years ago: “We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.”

This is making our situation extremely fragile.

Our power source is a lot more limited than we think

If you think that my point above was too much of a thought experiment (which it completely is, but I think it’s a conversation that we must have), you’ll definitely not like my next thesis.

Each threshold in David Christian’s book (check the banner below to see which they are, but above all, follow our podcast to catch the episode in a few weeks) marks a new level of increased complexity and involves new sources of energy.

For the sun, that energy comes from fusion. For the modern era, it comes from fossil fuels. David was of course thinking in very Big thresholds for the sake of his book (you can’t have a history of the world from the Big Bang until now and work with a lot of smaller thresholds or you’ll end up with a document that has more pages than there are grain of sands (presumably seven quintillion, five hundred quadrillion)). But let’s say that we would regard the Information Technology era as a mini-threshold. Carlota Perez certainly marked it as a big shift when she described the Industrial Revolutions (see below). In that case we could consider Information, or rather it’s digital format ‘data’ as the new source of energy of this era.

Now, aside from the obvious reasons of privacy and polarization that we have already talked about a lot (so I won’t further discuss it here), using information as fuel could have another consequence that we never talk about. And yes, this is where it gets very philosophical.

Those who started the revolution of “automobiles, oil and mass production” in 1908, never would have thought that the energy source that they were burning would be A. harmful to the environment at some point and B. finite.

Today, social media addiction or scandals like Cambridge Analytica have shown us that burning information as energy can indeed be harmful in ways that the IT pioneers never would have expected. But weirdly enough everyone seems to agree upon the fact that data is an infinite energy source. They tend to say that that’s the reason why data should not be called the new oil because oil is a finite source while data is not.

But is it really infinite?

First of all, data is definitely less infinite than information . This ‘fuel’ is – at least today - very finite. Not all information – like suppressed emotions or information about those people who are less connected and represented online - can be turned into data (for now). Perhaps even more important: we only have information (and data) about the past and present, not about the future. You might think: “well, obviously”. But it’s still a pretty important ‘detail’ and it’s not because it’s not (yet) possible that it does not impact us. If we had information about the future, we could foresee the negative effects of our inventions and side-step them so we could better survive. But we can’t. Which makes information by consequence a flawed source with many unintended consequences.

But yes, it’s true that we have never been able to reap information from the future. This has never stopped us from using information in ways that helped us survive and procreate (which was my first point), but I think that we can all agree that we have built social and economic structures that are so gigantic and at the same time that fragile that correct predictions are becoming more important than ever. And the truth is, that the more complex, connected and unpredictable the structures, the harder predictions become. And the more that the ‘limits’ of our data will impact us.

This might be more of a philosophical piece than you are used to from me. But I do think that we need to think a lot harder about our relationship with information (technology) and its impact on the future than we have been doing until today. This could be so much more fundamental than being a question of polarization, transparency, security and privacy.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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July 1, 2020