Hyper-Redundancy, Noise & The ‘New’ Obsolete.
“In the beginning there was information. The word came later.” This quote, taken from Fred Dretske’s book, Knowledge and the Flow of Information published by Cambridge University Press in 1981 is a poignant reminder of the implicit nature of information that has been with us since the dawn of man. To say we are living an information age today is contrived. In my view it is a redundant attempt to excite the masses, to engender evermore possibilities for marketing ploys, boring tech conferences and ultimately to play herald to the ‘new’. For without something new, like a healthy shopping spree to fill our spiritual glee, it seems we are unable to function. We are living in the hyper interconnected noise machine that updates with spanking newness every nanosecond of the day. The reasons and indeed implications of this spiral towards banal use of information is a complex and perplexing matter. Where have we gone wrong?
The constant search to amass the nugget pile, to express its ‘newness’ and shout out loud with egocentric joy whilst pressing publish, post or tweet from our all too cosy sofas is a chronic state of affairs. Worst still, and for the street paroling or bar crawling paresseux among us, ‘Like’ has become a worrying possibility of ‘self expression’ in the ‘new information age’ blindly presented to us. To think this omnipresent button lived a short life in the lab of labs as the ‘Awesome’ button is thought provoking – for about one second. Obviously, no one ever proposed ‘Wicked init!’. Just as no one dared to propose ‘No more please’.
Reducing social expression to the simplistic act of pressing a button and producing a generation of frenzied clucking clickers is perturbing. Behind this superficial and superfluous hyper-liking trend lies a strategy that doesn’t really have the interests of the people at heart. More importantly, nor does it add anything constructive to the information layer. It is purely a marketing technique concocted to fuel the consumer bandwagon.
This essay is primarily about information in the digital age and how information can be an opportunity as equally as it can be a potential death penalty for our economies, politics and cultures. I’ll begin with a simple prophesy. We will not be a society of cybernetic sheep queuing up by the thousands to sign up to the Singularity. Nor will we be a society living in G+ pseudo open sourced communities and villas, driving to work in the latest update of the iCar V8 to start the day at the office where we labour to feed the system with new content. After a full day of churning out viscous verbosity, we will not be winding down in the evening with friends at the FB community centre. You may well have flinched at moments in reading this and for good reason. For if you share my flinching thoughts on this too, this hypothetical scenario is not a prophesy for disaster. It is practically and unfortunately the current disaster. The car is yet to arrive but it was a concept Mr.Jobs had lined up and you can look forward to its arrival in some form or shape. Are you worried? Do you even care?
Whether you are rummaging the crass, admittedly amusing at times, or exchanging facts with someone across the globe to help build a bridge, the channels of information have become increasingly easy. In the latter scenario I’d like to think that this facility to communicate is a better use of today’s technological progress and its possibilities. Not so long ago, the telegraph and plain old letter were our only means for passing on messages and to remember or at least imagine that fact should put you in the same viewing seat as mine. This ease of communication has an opportunity cost and especially when it is reduced to the choice of pressing a single button often associated with the former scenario.
Making things ‘easier’ diverts the attention needed for doing things that are admittedly harder but invariably more enriching and without doubt more powerful. Our intuition is to follow and ‘engage’ with the crowds in online interactions and communication of information that are set up to facilitate our lives. This ‘online intuition’ is intrinsically linked with the automatic gun that fires hit and miss rounds. It is a cognitive impulsion primed for hedonistic heuristics. It is unconscious smoking of bad weed. Basically, it is hitting ‘Like’ without thinking beyond. This facility with the dominant tools on line, whose selling point is invariably, “making your digital lives easier and enabling more connectivity” is fundamentally a lair to the lions den.
The web seemed to arrive like a whirlwind, for some of course they were born in it and in the future they will be born with it – inside them – according to certain sources. During the heady days of the Web’s arrival, it felt like the new punk rock. Everyone had an instrument and we felt we could all be part of a band. That vision hasn’t changed much, it’s just that we now have the choice between Fender Broadcasters, Gibson SGs or custom made Paul Reed Smiths, all equipped of course with a Cry Baby and Ultra Fuzz – especially noise! However, during that short space of time in which the Web has grown up with version badges to acclaim its rise in prominence and importance, certain forces have taken hold. They have surreptitiously slipped into this realm of the promised land and have become managers of our band. At times they want us to play hymns of happiness and in store ambience when in fact we just want to hang out and play our own thing.
One of those so called managers made almost 37 billion dollars in revenue in its third quarter of 2012. It gained this solely by delivering advertising and strategically placing those on websites, sometimes without the courtesy of notifying the author and practically always without any contracts between itself, the advertiser or the author. According to recent research you’re paying this corporation around $5,000 per annum in personal data in exchange for its services. In a recent official report distributed by the French government, data, and essentially personal data is clearly stated as the current currency of exchange and the major monetary resource of the digital economy. Further more this corporation, as many others, avoid paying a single penny in tax for our work. A point that particularly annoys the French government too. How has this happened?
This particular corporation is the major conveyor of information on the Web today but interestingly, they are not the source of information. They are not the music we compose. They don’t even make music. They are an information technology that streams, parses, indexes and filters. The information passing through these channels eventually finds its path to the lions den. It is the den of data, the lions have been killed off by the way. From this place they are free to exchange with third party corporations, governments and any official and indeed non official bureau with the necessary links. Ultimately they have control of our information yet they have no information. We can safely say they have learnt only one side of information but indeed a most powerful side.
Now, there needs to be some understanding of what the word information means here. In computer science, information is the transfer of a quantifiable message from one place to another. This is how it was stated by Claude Shannon in his groundbreaking work published in 1949, A Mathematical Theory of Communication. Shannon understood information purely from an engineering perspective. It is a mechanism of two states; on and off. The byte is its measure, the machine its vector. From this perspective, our big boss is simply acting as a channel of information. Again it is not a creator of information in the more widely understood meaning of the term. We’ll get to that a little later.
Many psychologists, philosophers, linguists and biologists were fascinated with this new theory of information when first presented in March 1950 at the Conference on Cybernetics. Shannon famously demonstrated a mechanical mouse that could find it’s way through a maze. The system was based on relays attached to the mechanical mouse and by ‘memorising’ its path, it was able to logically make its way to the centre. What people envisioned was perhaps both exciting and, I can imagine, a little worrying. Worrying? Their reactions culminated in one pertinent question; was this after all a machine that could ‘think’?
Interestingly, one severe critic of Shannon’s findings, a past professor of his, Norbert Wiener, took heart to the matter. Wiener is famously considered the brainchild of cybernetics, which in its beginnings was an attempt to question the machine and its fundamental effects on the human. Whereas Shannon was focusing his efforts on the power of the machine, a machine that would later become the computer, Wiener was tentative of this potential power. He was in fact more interested in the man and machine correlation. The interaction between these two had far more reaching implications for the human race as far as he was concerned.
What was particular about “Shannon’s information” was that he purposefully dismissed any concept of sense or meaning. A fundamental part of his theory that invariably riled his critics because the link with information in its more general sense and the implications for developing a machine that had memory was too strong. Being able to store information and simulate intelligent behaviour was all too close to cerebral home for comfort. The rest is general history, the computer was born. Cybernetics became a low key term fizzling out before Wiener could see its rise again in later years. However, the interaction between man and machine is today more in need of attention than ever before.
Information is only complete with its three parts: a transmitter, a channel, a receiver. The machine can work on all three levels but there is an added dimension that takes “Shannon’s information” out of the purely mathematical process. This dimension is inherently human, inherently unpredictable, dynamically complex and unmistakably unresolved. Today, some psychologists defend the belief that the brain essentially only comprehends two states : that of pleasure and suffering. (Perhaps we should create some buttons for those ?) This is a vast yet convenient generalisation because the brain often wavers between these two states.
For example, our mood on awakening in the morning is essentially dominated by one of these frames of mind,(before we eventually make a decision to rise or take cover under the quilt). What is to be understood here though is that these are but only states of mind at a particular point in time. We twitch with a particular thought that is caught up in one of these. Suffering leads to black holes, pleasure to orgasmic orgies. They are therefore in reality two states that are in a constant state of flux. What happens in between that period of time is far more complex and far more profound than a simple binary machine switching between on and off. On an electromechanical level and getting back to Shannon and his contemporaries, this process of flux in between is akin to noise in the information channel.
“The mind is a noisy parliament of conflicting fractions” says Steven Pinker in his epic work, How the Mind works (Norton, 1997). The complexity of the mind and language in the process of information is what distinguishes the man from machine. If we adopt this rather apt quotation to a view of the Web then you should be able to imagine the meanest bad ass thrash fuzz pedal that ever existed and once you are logged in you’ve turned the fucker on for good. When people talk about information overload they are talking about standing next to a 30K Watt speaker barking out noise. It is incessant and generally not good for the health, even more so for those who adhere to the always on techno culture. Noise is therefore a neat metaphor for understanding what is happening with the web and with information.
This brings us back to our band manager and the concept of filtering. The effects pedal is a filtering process of the signal. In transmitting information effectively and efficiently, we need to filter. To transform that information in to knowledge we also need to filter and it is essentially filtering noise not adding it. Fuzziness is a cognitive state well known to psychologists. It is a cognitive process dominated by uncertainty and in which subjectivity, perception, reasoning and intuition all play their role. Shannon stated in his theory of information that the less uncertain the information the less information we are getting. That is to say, the amount of information is in direct correlation to the amount of uncertainty. Fuzziness and the act of filtering has an effect on the acquisition of information and therefore on human knowledge. This phenomenon happens both on and off line of course, both in the analog and the digital world. However, it is the filtering of these information channels within the digital that needs to be addressed and especially within the context of who is at the control panel here.
On the one extreme then we have a noisy experience when connected to these channels of information. Spam, advertising, notifications etc. At the other, we have dumbed downed button clicking face fooking ‘tools’ that are there to filter the noise and supposedly help us in our journeys and quests online. Funnily both are connected. The more we feed the system the more it spurts back at us noise. Is is personally filtered noise however and again we kind of suck up to that idea as being a technological advancement in helping us. So we buy it.
Let’s be honest though. The people at the top of these various filtering activities don’t give a flying shit. We are mere content drones feeding their damn system. To add salt to the wound here, these people even have the cheek to turn around in times of negative criticism to explain that we don’t have to use their services. It’s pretty hard not too, that’s the answer we slam back at them. Especially, when the only two major computer systems in the World come out of the box with all these services either installed or just a click away – once again the temptation to take the path of facility is but a carrot before our eyes.
That image of the carrot and the donkey is a powerful reminder of how dumb the human race can be. I never said that ok. It is a basic premise of marketing and has its roots with a certain Edward Bernays, father of public relations and propaganda. Bernays viewed the ‘mass’, the people as “stupid”. With that simple assumption, a consumer society was not only constructed but a political policy of fear was installed. The goal was to filter and control the masses. The story can be watched on the boob channel and is a documentary aptly entitled, The Century of the Self.
So where is the grass that is greener you may be asking? Well it ain’t anywhere near this cow patch invested hyper-field of ours. We are going to have to cultivate it. The good news, and you were probably wondering if there was any, is that the seeds for change have been sown but much more will be needed in effort and action to make sure we weed out the crass and keep watering the seeds. And that needs to start in the head and not in the machine. Not with mindless clicking, clucking and twalking. It’s simply a wasted opportunity. Next time you are on the verge of pressing ‘like’, perhaps pause for a moment and think about the various interactions this implies. You never know, you may be detonating a bomb for social disaster.